Show or Not to Show?
Images in TV MediaBy
profusion of graphic televised footage of dead bodies, sometimes
charred or disfigured, has raised difficult ethical and journalistic
decisions for news editors, whether at CNN or the Hizbullah-backed
Lebanese channel Al-Manar. In a series of interviews, news editors
talk about their decision-making policies on screening disturbing
The coverage of the four US civilian contractors whose bodies
were mutilated after a roadside attack in the Iraqi town of
Fallujah in late March clearly illustrates the different approaches
taken by the channels.
Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International, said the
images that came into the news room from Fallujah varied from
long shots to close-ups.
"We made a judgment that this was a bit of a watershed
in violence against Westerners in Iraq ... and therefore it
was acceptable to include images which I think, if they had
occurred in other stories in other parts of the world, we might
not have included," he said. "You need to afford people
dignity in death ... and we thought it was inappropriate to
show close-ups of corpses which were burned."
CNN was, however, one of the few channels to show the bodies
hung up on a bridge, an editorial decision Cramer said was justified
by the uniqueness of the event. "There is no textbook for
this stuff. It was an occasion where, with the appropriate care,
we needed to show what we showed."
There was no difference in the use of footage between CNN and
CNN International. "Where we tend to do things slightly
differently, if we believe on the domestic channel that there
are clearly relatives and next of kin in the US, then we would
always wait until next of kin are informed," he said.
In stark contrast to CNN, the BBC only aired the event once,
on the 10pm evening news, for three seconds in a long distance
shot. "This was heavily prefaced with a warning,"
a BBC spokesperson said.
Jihad Ballout, media relations spokesperson for the Qatar-based
satellite network Al Jazeera, said the editorial committee took
a different route "by not showing the mutilated corpses
being dragged by kids or hung from bridges.
"We showed footage indicative and reflective enough ...
the burning and stoning of the car and a long shot of a charred
corpse. We described what happened and felt that the description
was strong enough," he said. "The jubilation of the
crowd was more reflective of the mood than the hanging on the
Elie Harb, assistant editor in chief of the Lebanese Broadcasting
Company (LBC), said the channel showed only five or six seconds
of graphic images. "There is too much detail on people
killed in Iraq, whether American or Iraqi," he said.
Hassan Fadlallah, news editor at the Lebanon-based, Hizbullah-backed
channel Al-Manar, said they did not use all the images available
of the dead contractors. "We only showed a little bit,
because it is against the ethics and morals of our religion,
and of Al-Manar's policy. We believe there is a certain sanctity
of the human body."
"We try not to show dead soldiers' bodies in detail, using
long shots rather than in close focus, so as to not hurt the
feelings of the soldier's family," Fadlallah added.
Cultural differences have been highlighted by media commentators
as an explanation for the difference in the usage of graphic
footage between Western and Arabic TV news.
"I think there are some cultural differences; I think there
are clearly some editorial differences," said Cramer of
CNN. "There are networks around the world that believe
if you edit coverage then you are censoring, which I think is
completely risible. Our newspapers and TV channels would be
full of blood and gore and nothing else."
"We have a responsibility to report the world and to live
without fear or favor and not just shy away from unpalatable
images," Cramer added. "At the same time, you have
a responsibility not to confront the audience with a bloodbath
... To edit is to choose."
Harb, of LBC, said the decision to show graphic images on the
news was based more on culture than politics. "We in the
East are not shocked if we see bodies, we are used to seeing
bodies from war," he said.
Harb explained how restrictions on the usage of footage often
come from outside Lebanon, citing the example of when two Japanese
civilians were killed in Iraq and LBC aired the images. "We
received a call from the Japanese Embassy (in Beirut) telling
us to please not show images of dead bodies. I asked why, and
he said you are offending our viewers in Japan ... If we receive
calls from outside saying the images are shocking, we will not
Harb said that, ironically, the most shocking footage LBC aired
was of the bodies of Saddam Hussein's sons. "The situation
was very strange ... when they (the US military) permitted all
the film crews to enter, it was a small tent with two bodies.
You had to shoot close ups ... of disgusting, un-humanitarian
shots. We were obliged to show them ... There are always exceptions."
Fadlallah said, "We have certain morals and ethics and
this differs from what the Americans might use ... Sometimes
we feel that we have to show such pictures or footage to make
the case much clearer."
Asked whether the difference between Arabic and Western news
was cultural, Fadlallah said it was both cultural and ideological.
"Regarding culture, our policy is not to show such images
to children. Sometimes we have to show such images to make the
story clearer to the viewer, such as of the full footage of
(slain Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz) Rantissi's assassination. Rantissi's
family allowed us to show this footage. Sometimes we show our
footage live, like operations that take place in Israel, usually
straight from Israeli TV. Some violence might pass."
All those interviewed commented that the decision to air graphic
images or not was complex and challenging. "These are tough
decisions and none of us have the right answers everyday. It
is a fascinating debate, but it is a debate. It is not a science,"
Paul Cochrane is a Beirut-based journalist and editor.
He is currently working on a book on political street art in
Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and the Occupied Territories with photographer