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Should NPR Have Run the Photo of a Dead Marine?

by Alicia C. Shepard
Sep 10, 2009

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John and Sharon Bernard's only son, Joshua, 21, was wounded on Aug. 14 when a rocket-propelled grenade blew off one of his legs and severely injured the other during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan.

"His comrades struggled with tourniquets and battlefield first aid while still under heavy enemy fire, but sadly, for this young, mortally wounded Marine, this attack would mean the end of his life a short time later," wrote Jim Bennett on his blog, the bloviating hammerhead.

Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson, who was embedded with Bernard's Marine unit, shot the scene from a respectful distance, as military guidelines require. Embedded photographers are only allowed to shoot from a distance and may not show the facial features of the person who has been killed or wounded.

Jacobson captured the gruesome death of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, a young man from New Portland, Maine, whose parents had home-schooled him and who taught Bible studies to fellow Marines in his Afghanistan unit. He loved literature, was an avid hiker, an Iraqi war veteran and hoped to become a U.S. marshall.

The picture conveys the loss to the Bernards, to their son's unit and to the rest of the United States as well as graphically depicting the cost of war beyond the lives and billions of dollars already spent. The question becomes what to do with this photograph. Should it be published?

We hear on the news of soldiers — or civilians — dying in Afghanistan or Iraq almost daily. Most of us have become inured. Those killed are statistics. But the photo of Bernard lying on the ground, covered in blood, shortly before dying reminds us that real people — sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters — are dying.

As a journalist, I say, publish the photo. As the mother of a 22-year-old, I would want the world to know what my son sacrificed for his country. But Joshua Bernard's parents don't share those sentiments.

They adamantly did not want the AP to distribute the photo to its newspaper, broadcast and online clients. They had the chance to make their feelings known because the AP, showing remarkable sensitivity, shared the photos with the family a few days after the Aug. 24 funeral.

Bennett, of the bloviating hammerhead was outraged at AP's decision and interviewed John Bernard, a career Marine.

Bernard said he handed the photos back to the AP reporter, adding: "Look, neither my wife nor daughter needs to see this. Nobody needs to see this. So if you're asking me for my permission, you don't have it. You need to go back and tell them that absolutely no one needs to see this. It doesn't honor him. It doesn't honor the Corps. It doesn't honor God. It doesn't honor this country, and it doesn't do them (AP), as a news agency, any service whatsoever."

Four days later, Bernard called AP again asking them to spare his family more pain. Last Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked AP to hold back the pictures.

After much discussion and thought, the AP decided to release the photos. Last Thursday, it sent them with an embargo so that editors across the nation would have time to reflect within their own newsrooms on whether to run the disturbing images. Read the AP's statement.

"I have very little use for the people who took the picture and even less for those who ran it," Bernard told Bennett. "They had plenty of time to reflect on it, and they did it anyway."

When NPR received the AP photos, four editors discussed whether to publish them on the website. They decided to run two on NPR's news blog, The Two-Way. In a posting on Sept. 4 at 5:26 p.m., Frank James wrote a short story.

The photos were put behind a screen warning viewers that if they clicked on it, they might find the images unsettling. The decision to look at the photos was then, up to the individual.

It's important to note that NPR did not blithely post the photos, but gave a lot of thought to the decision, and James explained the reasoning in his post. In such situations, it's critical that news organizations explain their decision-making. NPR also linked to the AP story about Bernard.

"After talking it over, I felt that the picture was a legitimate, albeit grim, image that was part of the overall story of the Afghan war we have tried to tell since the beginning and have done with considerable care and thoroughness," said NPR senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss. "The embedding of journalists should reflect not just the story of military or policy successes but has to tell the stories of sacrifices and loss."

NPR also included in The Two-Way a discussion about the AP decision to send the photos out to news organizations.

"Often when discussing tough calls like this one, we try to see that no harm is done to the parties involved. Or that if harm does occur, we minimize it as best we can," said Keith Jenkins, who runs NPR's multimedia department. "I felt that AP tried to do that when they met with the family in advance of releasing the photo. We tried to do that by providing context through Frank James' blog post and by giving our viewers the ability to opt out of viewing the image, as well as to see other photos of Lance. Cpl. Bernard and his unit as they honored him in a memorial service."

In an ideal world, I'd advocate that NPR not go against the family's wishes, especially since they were so clear. I'd say to look for alternatives. With hundreds of soldiers dying, is this the only photo of dying soldier?

But the reality is that images of U.S soldiers killed in combat have not been widely disseminated because it's unusual for photographers to witness the deaths, and because of military restrictions. Only recently have journalists been allowed to photograph coffins as they are unloaded from military airplanes.

"Going back to the beginning of the Iraq War, we have seen very, very few of these photos," said Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher (a newspaper trade publication) and author of "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq."

Mitchell appeared Tuesday on a Talk of the Nation segment on this topic.

"And that's why whenever there is a photo of this type, it's very controversial because we've hardly ever seen them," Mitchell said. "And many people feel that the war has been sanitized and that no one could really accuse the news media — whatever you think of this particular incident — no one could possibly accuse the new media of showing so many of these images over the years. There have been very, very few exceptions in this. And so, (the media have) demonstrated incredible restraint. Some people feel too much restraint."

War is messy, painful, expensive and confusing. We need to be told regularly of the sacrifices made by the soldiers and civilians who are suffer in all wars. I'm sorry that the Bernards had to pay a price — twice — to remind the rest of us what is too easy to forget as we go about our lives tuning out the news of yet another military death.

It may be a small consolation, but many of us now know much more about Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard — and the ultimate sacrifice he made on behalf of you and me.

Here is the AP narrated slide show that tells of Bernard's last day, including the controversial photo—with a warning.

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