March 10, 2010

Rejecting a gratuitous war photo

— War is hell, and we all know it.

This is a country of people schooled quite well in the grim reality of war. Our senior citizens were shaped by World War II and all of its horror. The massive boomer population came of age in the era of Vietnam and all of its nightmares. Generations X and Y grew up with friends and family fighting in Kuwait and Iraq, and then Afghanistan and Iraq.

We get it. We know the sad numbers -- nearly 800 U.S. service members dead in Afghanistan, nearly 3,500 dead in Iraq. We get how awful and brutal war is, and most of us are touched personally by it.

We don't need gratuitous reminders to know that members of our armed forces make the ultimate sacrifice.

That's why it's so frustrating when news organizations decide that showing a distressing photo of a soldier who has been mortally wounded is somehow necessary to ''convey the grimness of war.''

The Associated Press used this reasoning when it decided to distribute a photo of Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland as he lay dying after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan.

Bernard, 21, the son of a Marine, had joined the Corps in November 2006. He'd been deployed in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan in May. He became the 10th person with Maine ties to die there.

The Press Herald -- as well as a majority of other daily newspapers -- wisely chose not to run the harrowing picture of Bernard with the story it accompanied on Friday. (The Associated Press distributed nine other photos, three of which this paper used.)

''We feel it is our journalistic duty to show the reality of the war ... however unpleasant and brutal that sometimes is,'' said Santiago Lyon of the AP.

Bull.

First, whenever you hear the words ''journalistic duty,'' you can be sure that something indecent and inhumane is about to occur. What that really means is this: We can't think of any legitimate reason to release this photo, so we're relying on our nebulous ''journalistic duty'' excuse.

Second, this speaks to a problem that plagues news organizations and newspapers to this day: So often, the work is not done with readers and the public in mind; it is done with competition and awards in mind.

Some of the most disturbing, objectionable images tend to win Pulitzers and other journalism prizes. Especially if the photo is something no one else has.

The AP released this picture not because of ''journalistic duty'' or because it was a telling, historic portrait of war, but simply because it had the photo to release, and Reuters, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the L.A. Times didn't.

What's more insulting is that Bernard's father, John, asked that the photo not be released, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates did the same on behalf of John and his wife, Sharon.

Not surprisingly, Gates then spent most of Friday criticizing the newspapers and Web sites that used the photo. And he was right to point out their lack of common decency.

If the picture had told an incredible, heretofore unseen story of battle, if it were a truly unique scene that informed an uninformed nation, then perhaps The Associated Press could be defended.

But this photo served no real purpose and had no true news value. It told us what we already know: War is hell. And no one needs to see a gratuitous image of hell.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard deserved better.

Jim Keyser is copy desk chief of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at jkeyser@pressherald.com.

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