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Morning Edition on National Public Radio first informed me that the two Hussein brothers, sons of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, had been found and killed, that the U.S. military was coping with Iraqi skepticism, and that pictures were being taken of their grisly remains to prove they had been killed. Almost as soon as pictorial proof was given to the media, there were storms of protest. Apparently, in Iraq-as in other societies-it is taboo, sacrilegious, and the worst ethic to show a corpse, especially a mangled one.

First ethical dilemma: Should the corpses have been shown, violating Iraqi (and Islamic) cultural propriety, or should the images have been withheld and, consequently, an important military accomplishment not be believed.

Perhaps it would salve this ethical wound to doctor the bodies so they didn't look quite so gruesome. So, the military shaved and groomed the bodies, added make-up and took pictures of the retouched "reality." Still, they were corpses. But would such changes make them more palatable for media consumers in other parts of the world?

Curious about the ethics of the whole situation, I looked at Web news sites and saw an array of photos of the dead brothers. It wasn't pretty.

That evening I first watched the local news on TV, with a segment on national and international news headlines. My local anchors told me about the story of the Hussein brothers, but informed me that they had decided not to show the grisly photos of the bodies. I stayed tuned. NBC Nightly News was next, and in the course of the next few minutes I got a fuller version of the story, together with up-close photos (presumably after the cosmetic workover). I was warned that the pictures might be offensive to some viewers, and I could look away if I so chose. (Yeah, sure! Such an advisory warning is like telling a child not to take one of those freshly baked, hot chocolate chip cookies!) I peeked. How disappointing! It wasn't nearly as gruesome as the violent scenes in many PG-13 movies.

Meanwhile, print media handled this problem with compromises-occasionally. Photos showed the bodies from an angle and distance so that gruesome features were not revealed.

Second ethical dilemma: Show the photos of the bodies on television, or withhold showing them in order to avoid violating the sensitivity of viewers who may be disgusted by such a sight.

Many case studies have found that media consumers often are queasy about an up-close photo of a dead body. I understand such uneasiness. I also noticed pretty vivid written descriptions of the same thing, and they didn't seem nearly as offensive. Then I began to think about the difference. Why is it that the best, most vivid written description of an unpleasant sight is allowable in the media, but a photo of that very subject is ethically questionable? Images, it seems, go directly to the senses. No time for conceptualization and processing in the ol' gray matter. It's right there! Wham! And often the image burns in the mind's eye and "sticks" like one on an improperly adjusted vidicon tube.

For quite some time many news media have sought to avoid close-up photos of dead bodies. Those who stepped over that line were seen as less ethical. The SPJ Code indicates, for instance, that ethical journalists should "show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity" and "be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief." Various media organizations have policies on just how to handle such images. But then war comes, and nearly all of the images seem obscene or unethical or in violation of sensitivity limitations expected in peacetime. Is war, then, an exception? Or such an unpleasantry that sensitivity or civility doesn't matter?

And what of terrorist incidents worldwide? Are they part of today's "war?" Remember the telephoto shots of victims trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11? Or, worse yet, video of people jumping from the upper floors of those buildings that day?

Third ethical dilemma: Are otherwise objectionable images OK to show during a war or other extreme tragedy, or is "objectionable" an absolute criterion?

Imagery and the war in Iraq also brought us curious images of Saddam Hussein. In the search for him, intelligence agencies thought he might be disguised, so furnished computer-altered pictures of how Saddam Hussein might look as an old man, or with a beard, or with his moustache shaved off. Then came to mind another image of the former Iraqi dictator-during the "First Gulf War." He was then (1991) on the covers of news magazines. Timeand The New Republic had the same portrait, except that on The New Republic his moustache had been shaved off on the sides, shortened to look like that of Adolf Hitler. Its cover story was titled "Furor in the Gulf"-easily confused with "Fuhrer in the Gulf." There was some outcry at the time, I remember, because the 1991 Iraqi dictator was made to look like the German dictator of the early 1940s. How dare someone "doctor up" the photo to twist reality and give false illusions from the image! The protest wasn't too strong, however, given the general dislike for Hussein.

But the ethics of altering a photo has been of serious concern for years. Photos represented reality; pictures don't lie. Altering them was a "serious form of deception." Remember when, during the O. J. Simpson incident and trial, Time magazine darkened its cover photo of O. J. for a purpose that could range from giving the illusion of a story of "dark tragedy" to emphasizing Simpson's race. Many didn't like Time's touch-up, and its photo editor took some heat on that one. Now, there are consumer-level computer software programs designed to play around and change photos almost as playthings. It seems no longer to be any big deal-unless the altering is intended to fool observers about a news event.

Fourth ethical dilemma: Is the alteration of a photo allowable, or should the image depicting reality never be changed?

Is the representation of reality better (or at least more convenient) than reality itself? In Boorstin's The Image,1 one chapter starts with the story of one person admiring the baby of another: "My what a cute baby!" "That's nothing," replies the proud parent. "Wait until you see his picture!"

Perhaps the image is better than the reality, or at least different from what it represents. And, perhaps the primary ethical or moral rights are really those of the subjects in photographs or videos.2 There is difficulty in assessing this general ethical question, since the snowballing use of computerized image distortion and related special effects has rolled too far for it to stop or return to what once was.

The fact that picture images never really do represent reality was summed up in a Bill Watterson comic strip in which Calvin says to Hobbes "This is what I like about photography. People think cameras always tell the truth. They think the camera is a dispassionate machine that records only facts, but really cameras lie all the time! Select the facts and you manipulate the truth! For example, I've cleared off this corner of my bed. Take a picture of me here, but crop out all the mess around me, so it looks like I keep my room tidy." Hobbes asks, "Is this even legal?" Calvin replies, "Wait, let me comb my hair and put on a tie."

REFERENCES

1 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

2 See, for example, Larry Gross, John S. Katz & Jay Ruby, Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film and Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

* Val E. Limburg is Prof. Emeritus in the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication of Washington State Univ. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 10,33.