Cognitive Dissonance

Should The Los Angeles Times have published photos of American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with enemy body parts?

The story’s sub-head reads: “An American soldier says he released the photos to the Los Angeles Times to draw attention to the safety risk of a breakdown in leadership and discipline.”

“The Army launched a criminal investigation,” reporter David Zucchino writes, “after The Los Angeles Times showed officials copies of the photos, which recently were given to the paper by a soldier from the division. ‘It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,’ said George Wright, an Army spokesman…. Wright said that after the investigation, the Army would ‘take appropriate action’ against those involved.”

So, it would appear that the military took action after learning about it from The Times. Good job, but should the photos have appeared along with the story?

In 1991, ethicist Michael Josephson, president and founder of The Josephson Institute of Ethics, translated his Six Pillars of Character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship) into actionable principles for journalists. Josephson has worked with newspaper managing editors in the past.

“As an aspect of our commitment to a free and vigorous press,” Josephson writes, “journalism is a form of public trust requiring the unselfish pursuit of three public service functions: 1.Teacher – informing us of things we ought to know to make us better citizens and persons; 2. Conscience – confronting us with opinions and facts which challenge us to live up to our values and beliefs; 3. Watchdog – uncovering and exposing corruption, mismanagement, waste, hypocrisy and other forms of impropriety which threaten public interests.”

Based on the Josephson model, The Times brought us a story that the public ought to know. The information confronts us with facts that challenge who we are, and what we stand for. Additionally, The Times would seem to perform their duty as watchdog by exposing a level of “impropriety which threatens public interests.”

Further, Josephson says that “The powers of the press should be used responsibly to advance public interest without causing unjustified harm. As a watchdog, the press should be fair, vigilant and aggressive in assuring that people of influence are held accountable. As a public conscience, it should remind citizens of their ideals and values and they way events bear on them. As a teacher, it should inform, clarify and explain about matters of social consequence and know without pandering unduly to public dispositions to be entertained and titillated.”

Once again, The Times appears to have acted in the public’s best interests without a conscious intent to print the photos for purposes of entertainment or titillation.

However, Josephson adds, “Journalists should demonstrate respect for human dignity, privacy… by treating people with respect, courtesy and decency and by providing information needed to make informed decisions…. [Further] Journalists should demonstrate concern for the well-being of others through caring, consideration, compassion and kindness. Mindful of the power of the press to help or harm, they avoid gratuitous or unjustifiable injuries.”

When the photos of the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam first surfaced in 1969, the public and the world was rightly outraged that such a crime could take place at the hands of American soldiers. It was the first time the public was brought so close to the true horrors of war in Viet Nam. More recently, however, when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was reported to have killed 16 innocent villagers in Afghanistan, the public was not exposed to photos of the dead; yet, all of us remained shocked and outraged by the atrocity.

While I believe The Times was fulfilling its obligation in exposing abuse, the question I keep coming back to is this: Why couldn’t the same story be told without the photos? The public remained outraged when the Bales incident surfaced and that contained no body photos. Why couldn’t The Times apply a similar template to its report?

I’m probably going against popular opinion, but the fact remains that journalism is a public trust and sometimes that trust requires self-restraint in bringing the necessary information to the public. If this had been the first time such an atrocity was committed in Afghanistan by American soldiers I would concede that the story carries notable impact with the photos. But we’ve faced so many similar public disclosures in the past. What’s to be gained from further photographic proof other than to shock?

While the military certainly should be put on notice, all of that could’ve happened without showing the graphic details. That certainly seems to have been the case with the Bales crime.

“The moral duties of caring,” Josephson writes, “require a journalist to render aid or prevent serious harm.”

From an ethical standpoint, the choice for The Times would seem to have been between the honesty of telling the story vs. respect for the victims as well as care for soldiers that may face retaliation from Afghan civilians as well as enemy fighters.

However, there’s a larger dimension to stories like these. What exactly was the decision-making process that led up to The Times decision to print the photos?

Times Editor Davan Maharaj: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

That’s great, but who at The Times was responsible for that decision and how do they make such decisions? Those are the real questions that need to be answered.

If we are to trust the news media to act in the public’s best interest, those are the questions we all should want answered.

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