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Photos spark media ethics debateTim Lockette
SUN STAFF WRITER
Should the news media show images of POWs or dead Americans?
When a hostile country parades American prisoners or even dead bodies before the cameras, does the American news media have the responsibility to show those pictures to the public - in the cause of depicting war, warts and all?
Or would showing those images only play into the hands of the enemy's propaganda machine - possibly even making reporters accomplices to a war crime?
As pictures of five soldiers taken prisoner in the war against Iraq slowly make their way onto the airwaves and into print in the United States, many Americans are asking themselves that question. But some Florida experts in media ethics say there's no simple answer to the question of how to handle pictures of Americans in defeat.
"It's a tough call," said Kim Walsh-Childers, who teaches a graduate-level class in media ethics at the University of Florida. "For me, the primary issue is always human decency, but you have to balance that with the redeeming social value these pictures might have."
News editors and producers around the country did have a tough call to make Sunday, when Iraqi television and the Al-Jazeera news network began broadcasting interviews with American soldiers captured in a battle near the Iraqi city of An Nasiriyah - and images of the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in the same battle.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took to the airwaves soon after the pictures first appeared, saying that the Iraqi broadcast violated the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war - which forbids countries from subjecting POWs to "humiliating and degrading treatment" and requires them to protect POWS from "public curiosity."
But some media ethics experts say that American news media can display POWs - or even pictures of dead soldiers - in a way that informs the public.
"We do a disservice to the public if we sanitize the war," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based school for journalists. "The public needs to understand both the heroism and the horror of war."
Steele said that even offensive images of war - like the videotape of American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 - can help the public understand the consequences of military action.
"We have to remember that millions of Americans oppose this war," he said. "They would argue that if we withhold these pictures, we're acting as PR people for the Pentagon."
But Walsh-Childers says even the possible social value of such pictures might be outweighed by a soldier's right to privacy and dignity.
"I would have a tough time making a decision on this one," she said. "Showing these images could make it much harder on family members of the soldiers, but the redeeming social value is pretty compelling."
UF professor Jon Roosenraad, who teaches an undergraduate media ethics class, says he probably wouldn't broadcast pictures of dead U.S. troops - but he said the decision is more a matter of taste than a matter of ethics.
"It's not an easy decision," he said. "But we have to think about whether this is necessary, and whether it's an appropriate thing to put into everyone's living room."
Journalists often talk of the "Wheaties test" - a rule of thumb that says a picture shouldn't be printed in a newspaper if it makes a reader feel sick at the breakfast table.
But Walsh-Childers says the Wheaties test often isn't applied consistently when news outlets are covering international conflict. Americans have a stronger stomach when it comes to pictures of foreigners who have been killed or tortured, she said.
"Consistency is an important part of any ethical system," she said. "And it's hard to find much consistency in the way most newspapers handle this issue."
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