Facing the Graphic Truth
Years ago when I spent time in Panama, rarely did a day go by when the morning paper didn’t carry the full-color, front-page bloodied remains of some poor guy killed the night before. It was hardly breakfast material, but apparently the photos didn’t disturb the reading public enough to make the paper stop publishing them.
Years ago when I spent time in Panama, rarely did a day go by when the morning paper didn’t carry the full-color, front-page bloodied remains of some poor guy killed the night before. It was hardly breakfast material, but apparently the photos didn’t disturb the reading public enough to make the paper stop publishing them. I suppose the debate on whether to run them ended long ago. It became knee-jerk policy.
Here in our country, however, we again visit the debate on whether to run graphic photos or video after four contractors were slain and publicly dismembered Wednesday in Iraq. Plenty of frames and footage show their tattered bodies being beaten, strung up and dragged through Fallujah among cheering crowds.
And just how much do we show?
Of course it's important to document these atrocities, to let the public stare them in the face so the horror of it all does not become diluted. As a reporter, I’m against sanitizing the news. We can’t child-proof the world to the point of paralyzing us all. People need to know how bad things are. People need to see.
And yet I think of how I'd swallow the evening news if I knew any of these victims personally, even as a friend.
I consider that fact that one man’s atrocity is another man’s glory. What seems atrocious to one group instills pride in another — so why give them the publicity?
And then it ultimately comes down to the public’s right to know versus the family’s anguish.
I think back to Aren Almon, the mother of the mangled baby photographed in the firefighter's arms after the Oklahoma City bombing. For years she said how terrible it was to see her daughter splashed across newspapers and on television that way. Yet she had a painting of the same graphic image hanging on her living room wall.
I'm no psychologist, but the contradiction in her words and actions on says something. She also became good friends with Chris Fields, the firefighter, and was comforted in knowing her daughter Baylee's body was treated with such respect. I wonder if she’d have known that had the photo not been published.
I also think of my brother, Kyle Seitsinger, an Army reservist who was killed when a weapons cache exploded on Jan. 29 in Afghanistan. We never saw graphic images of him. We only saw a clean photo of the flag-draped coffins of him and seven other soldiers being returned on a military plane.
But I wanted to know the condition of Kyle's body when the Army said he was "not viewable." I asked the casualty officer — I couldn't resist — and got a few vague details that have haunted me since. His face was gone, I was told. So were his legs. That was all I needed to create my own horrible image, which visits me still.
Sometimes our imagination is worse than the most graphic truth. Yet is it our job, as journalists, to smack someone with the truth? Well, yes.
But we can do it and still show some restraint. The best stories, after all, are those where a writer resists some words. Where the reader is trusted enough to understand the story without being hammered over the head with it.
After the March bombings in Madrid, I recall a powerful photo that ran on the front page of The Dallas Morning News. It showed body bags lined up in a row at the train station. No blood, no gore. I took the newspaper on a trip I had scheduled to Europe, where I met a Spaniard, and showed it to him. Did he find it offensive, I asked.
“We show worse,” he said.
But is “worse” really better at showing the truth? Is a still, dead body stronger than the weeping widow? It’s debatable, of course, but I come down on the side of suggestion — of showing enough in the form of a silhouette or body bag or teary survivor than to show a headless corpse, for instance. It’s more work to capture the magnitude of something without taking it squarely on.
There’s also more risk in missing it or, God forbid, sanitizing it. But the effort is worth it.
No planning went into capturing Baylee in Chris Fields’ arms that horrible morning in Oklahoma City. No one was even sure at the time whether Baylee was alive or dead. But every editor saw its poignancy.
As Steve Gorelick, vice president for Institutional Advancement at the City University of New York Graduate Center, put it: “No image has been more comforting to me as I have lived through 9/11, lost a neighbor that day, and finally lost my brother in law last summer in a terrorist murder in Israel.
“That image of gentleness amidst horror — the fireman — has almost been a talisman for me, a symbol that barbarity cannot obliterate gentle compassion.”
As a reader and viewer, I’m more affected by the “gentleness amidst horror” than I am by horror in its raw form. To me, that’s where the story gains perspective, where it rises to another level.
As journalists, we must always look for that, even as we continue to debate which images to use and how far to go.
Every horror has a human side. Our job is to find it.