Dale Harrison showed his Media Law and Ethics students a set of photos this spring and asked them which they would publish.
The first photos showed Saddam Hussein’s sons — Uday and Qusay — dead following a firefight with U.S. troops in Mosul in July 2003. The grisly photos showed both with dried blood on their faces. Qusay appeared to have a slash across his face.
Yes, media outlets chose correctly when deciding to publish these photos, the students said. The photos helped verify identity and confirm their deaths, they said.
The second set of photos showed the charred bodies of two American contractors hanging from a trestle after an ambush on their vehicle set it aflame. Villagers dragged the bodies through the streets of Al Fallujah and then strung them over a bridge this spring.
No, media outlets made a mistake publishing this photo, the students said. The victims’ families may not have been notified, and the images are too disturbing, students said.
Harrison, chairman of the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University, said the difference in attitudes highlights a crisis in consistency that’s been growing in journalism since Sept. 11, 2001.
He returns to the very basic question: “What does it mean to be a journalist?”
“The age-old question is whether a journalist is a citizen or journalist first,” said Harrison. “Typically journalism students are very different from the general student population … and have a natural proclivity for skepticism.”
But following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, journalists and journalism students began having visceral reactions to news of terrorism, he said.
“Their reaction has been as Americans and not as students of journalism,” he said. “They should have a different reaction to (these events, but) it has been very difficult to shake students out of that (visceral response).”
The reaction to images of the Hussein brothers emphasizes this, he said. The Bush administration said that it released the images for verification and identification purposes only, Harrison said.
His students “bought hook, line and sinker” the administration’s explanation, he said.
The pain terrorist attacks have caused the United States clearly affected how members of the media do their jobs, some believe.
“We were so hurt by what happened as a society it was hard for us to be objective, hard for us to make rational decisions,” said Paul Niwa, a visiting professor at Emerson College in Boston and former producer for CNBC, where he worked in September 2001.
“Pinning a flag on (a TV news anchor’s) lapel might help them establish a rapport with (viewers), (but) we have to think about the journalists overseas,” he said. “If the top anchor is wearing an American flag, what does that say about the network’s objectivity? What signal does that send to the sources the overseas reporter talks to? Or tries to?”
Ed Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, holds similar concerns in the post-9/11 world.
For him, it isn’t an issue of an individual’s code of ethics so much as it is about the role of the media in times of a national crisis.
“If any of the pillars of journalism have been shaken (since 9/11), it has been independence,” he said, referring to his view that major networks and papers have rallied around the flag following the terrorist attacks.
From the ease with which major newspapers such as the New York Times accepted the assertion from unchallenged sources that Iraq held a large stash of weapons of mass destruction to the absence of graphic war images in print and on television news casts, Wasserman believes the basic role of journalists as independent observers has been compromised.
“There was a virtual embargo on grisly images of the war until (Al Fallujah),” he said.
These troubled times make for good case studies for ethics classes, said Wasserman.
Students should ponder the issues that come with practicing journalism at a time the institution faces pressure from readers, viewers and government to support the war effort.
Publishing images from Iraq “is very difficult in any situation, but it’s particularly difficult now because of politics,” Wasserman said.
“The media is under pressure from the conservative press that will lambaste them anytime they step out of line from strong support for the administration,” he said.
And from that grows an “inability of journalists and journalism students to ask questions of 9/11 and Iraq,” said Harrison.
“That comes from being an American first.”
In class, Harrison finds he often takes the opposing point of view in class discussions.
“Normally the students do that for you, but to a large extent it has been a chorus of ’America the Beautiful,’ ” he said about class discussions. “Not to be too cynical, but it’s all that it’s been. It’s almost impossible to get students to see there is an opposite point of view. (For them), there is no other point of view.”
Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter scholar for journalism values at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, “hit the collective psyche of journalists and resulted in many journalists feeling some tension and even pressure in terms of their citizenship vis-a-vis their journalistic duty.”
“All journalists have certain notions and ideals and bias when it comes to matters such as government, the military and war,” and that is a natural reaction, he said.
“Those tensions may be especially challenging to students,” Steele said, who still must develop the skills, critical thinking and maturity required for journalism.
Seasoned journalists “may be able to appropriately able to keep these personal thoughts and biases in check,” he said.
“We should both teach and guide young journalists to do the same … as they learn to honor the standards and values of the (journalism) profession.”
Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor at William Paterson University. June Nicholson is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and chairwoman of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.