An Associated Press (AP) decision to publish a photograph of a fatally wounded Marine in Afghanistan drew sharp criticism from the Pentagon and sparked a journalistic debate in September 2009 after the AP made the photograph public over the objections of the soldier's family. The controversy over the release of the photograph eventually led to modifications in the rules governing media photography of the war in Afghanistan.
The image, taken August 14 by AP photographer Julie Jacobson, shows 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard of New Portland, Maine, being helped by fellow Marines after suffering severe leg injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade attack. He later died of his wounds. The photograph was released as part of a series of stories titled "AP Impact - Afghan - Death of a Marine," with the dateline of Dahaneh, Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates objected "in the strongest terms" to the AP's decision to publish the photo, according to a September 4 post on the blog Politico. In a letter to Thomas Curley, the president and chief executive officer of the AP, Gates asked that the organization respect the wishes of Bernard's father and not publish the photo. "Why your organization would purposefully defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me," Gates wrote. "Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right - but judgment and common decency."
The AP stood by its decision to release the photograph, noting that Jacobson "took the picture from a distance with a long lens and did not interfere with Marines trying to assist Bernard," according to a September 4 post on The New York Times photojournalism blog The Lens. The AP also noted that it withheld the photograph until after Bernard's burial and contacted his family in advance. In a September 4 AP story, AP senior managing editor John Daniszewski said, "We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish. We believe this image is part of the history of this war. The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
The September 4 AP story also pointed out that the photograph was transmitted on the morning of September 3 with an "embargo" that prohibited release of the picture until 12:01 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 4. The embargo left the decision about whether and how to publish the photograph up to individual editors and gave them extra time to consider the implications of the decision.
According to a September 5 AP report, the news story accompanying Jacobson's photo was used on the front page of at least 20 newspapers, none of which ran the photograph on the front page, although a few included the photograph on inside pages or on their Web sites. Most newspapers and news organizations opted not to use the photograph.
In a September 5 post on the blog Foreign Policy, former Washington Post defense reporter Tom Ricks wrote that the AP's decision to transmit the photograph was "morally indefensible," and that he was embarrassed for American journalism. "As a former military reporter, I'm also angry with the AP," Ricks wrote. "They've committed the sin, but all of us in the media will pay for it. This one will haunt us for years. The Marines, especially, don't forget."
Santiago Lyon responded to Ricks' criticism in a September 11 broadcast of National Public Radio's "On the Media," saying that Marines on the ground in Afghanistan have told him they do not have a problem with the AP's decision to publish the photograph. "They understand that it's our job to photograph and capture reality and that we did our job," Lyon said. "And this is coming from the men on the ground actually fighting the war."
Many news organizations that chose to run the photograph included editorial statements explaining their decisions. In a September 10 post on NPR's Web site, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote that the decision to post the photo on its Web site came after a lot of thought and discussion, and that the photos were placed behind a screen warning, in order to leave the decision to view the photos up to the individual. Ellen Weiss, NPR senior vice president for news, was quoted as saying that the picture was a "legitimate, albeit grim, image that was part of the overall story of the Afghan war ... . The embedding of journalists should reflect not just the story of military or policy successes but has to tell the stories of sacrifices and losses."
Mike Tharp, executive editor of the Merced, Calif., Sun-Star, weighed in on his decision to print the photograph, responding to heated criticism by commenters on the Sun-Star's Web site:
"I expected these reactions when I ordered that both the AP photo and story be published in our pages and on this Web site. ... I did so because, as a veteran, a war correspondent and an editor, I feel a deep duty to show American civilians the costs of fighting a war. To show the ultimate sacrifices paid by our servicemen and women in our name. Printed words, as your comments vividly show, wouldn't have generated the same responses as the image we ran.
"As a father I also understand those of you who commented about respecting the family's wishes. I don't take those wishes lightly. But the photo and story had been transmitted all over the world by the time it landed in Merced. I believe that a greater good came from our publishing the photo than by not publishing it.
"Good journalism isn't good if it tells only what you want to know. We sometimes must tell you what you need to know. And, as happened so often in history, the first reaction was to shoot the messenger for the bad news."
According to an October 16 AP story, shortly after the release of the photograph, Afghanistan regional commanders amended the rules that reporters and photographers are required to sign before being embedded with a unit. The new rules stated "Media will not be allowed to photograph or record video of U.S. personnel killed in action."
Jacobson's photo was instrumental in the rule change. "After that incident, we felt that for the sake of the soldier and the family members that was what we needed to do," said Lt. Col. Clarence Counts, a spokesman for the U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan, in an October 16 Washington Post story. Counts said the earlier rules "left it too wide open with regard to protecting the soldier and his family members if we had a KIA," referring to a service member killed in action.
After news organizations protested the rule change, the Pentagon suggested a revision to the rule, according to the October 16 AP story. The new rule, released October 15, stated, "Media will not be prohibited from viewing or filming casualties; however, casualty photographs showing recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature or item will not be published. In respect to our family members, names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member's prior written consent." The most recent version of the rule is available online at http://tinyurl.com/afghanembeds.
"In retrospect we may have gone a little too far to the right - so we modified it a little more," Counts said of the second change in the October 16 Washington Post story.
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, criticized the rules in the October 16 AP story, saying that wartime photography gives citizens a necessary sense of what war is about.
"I'm really concerned about the government deciding what's newsworthy, instead of a news organization deciding what's newsworthy," Dalglish said.
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant