What Is Too Gruesome? An Argument for Releasing bin Laden’s Photo

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Pete Souza / White House

President Obama has decided not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body, saying, “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

Obama also says he has concerns that releasing the images of the terrorist leader, who was shot in the head, might incite further anti-American violence. And that the graphic nature of bin Laden’s death may make the pictures difficult to take for some.

The decision was clearly a difficult one, even as Reuters, without authorization of the U.S. government, released pictures of three other men lying in pools of blood, killed in the same raid of bin Laden’s compound.

(More on TIME.com: “Bin Laden’s Young Daughter Watched Him Die. Does She Share His Beliefs?”)

Should Obama release the photos of bin Laden’s corpse? I spoke with Barbie Zelizer, professor of communications at the Annenberg School of Communication at University of Pennsylvania, for her perspective. Zelizer is the author of About to Die—How News Images Move the Public. For the past decade, she has researched iconic images from wars and natural disasters, including conflicts in the Middle East and 9/11, to better understand the role that pictures of death play in our understanding of news events.

Q: Should the government release the photo of bin Laden’s body?

A: Absolutely, yes. No qualification on that.

Q: Why?

A: The issue is far larger than the bin Laden photo. The argument I make across multiple events is that the picture is not news; the event is news. If we are serious about using pictures in the news record, we have to be serious across the board. Whenever we find ourselves saying that we provide graphic detail in a verbal record, but won’t show the picture, at some level we are working against the picture’s own capacity to bring us news.

There is something different about reading a news story versus seeing a picture. Either we have to be serious about what news pictures do differently, or we have to pull back on them across the board. But on a case-by-case basis, where each time there is a complicated, unsettled, contentious event involving somebody dying with some kind of gruesome visual documentation, we’ve got somebody new making the call. This time it was Obama; the last time it might have been the Iraqi militia, and the time before that it might have been bereaved parents. We don’t have a standard.

(More on TIME.com: “Abbottabad, a Hotspot for Medical Care”)

Many times we do see graphic pictures — we saw pictures of Saddam Hussein’s dead sons. We do see pictures of people dying in the news all the time. The quibble here is that we pretend like there is a standard across board when there isn’t.

Q: You’ve been looking at the role that pictures play in depicting news events such as the Holocaust as well as recent conflicts in the Middle East. How important are images in the reporting of these events?

A: Pictures in the news are usually second-class citizens to words. They append what we get told in verbal detail. But in times of crises, whether it’s a war, a terrorist act or after a natural disaster, we see an absolute turn to the visual in the news. We see more pictures, more prominent pictures and bolder pictures. And because we have a profound ambivalence about death, pictures of people facing death [rather than the dead] are a useful qualifier. It allows news organizations to show death in a way that’s not gruesome. But the reaction to seeing the gruesome is part of the event.

The two questions we need to be asking are: 1) if we are willing to read gruesome details about death in words, why are we asking for a different standard in pictures? Why are we not willing to see the same visual detail in pictures? And 2) we see that type of visual detail all the time in fictional settings such as on TV and in films and on the Internet. Why are we pulling back in the one environment where it’s most important for us to get as complete a record as possible?

Images help us to complete the record for a news event and offer us a different version of what happened. So when we start claiming decency or crying out for appropriateness, we are making it more complicated for journalism to provide the record we need about events like bin Laden’s death.

(More on TIME.com: “Your Brain on bin Laden: Why Vengeance Is So Sweet”)

Q: That’s the journalistic argument. What about the psychological impact that a picture of bin Laden’s body might have on the American public?

A: You will find people on both sides: you will find people who say that the picture can help us to reach closure, and you will find people who say this can traumatize us further. I don’t think we have a clear enough answer about what pictures do for us. We live in a profoundly visual informational environment where visual imagery is increasingly the way in which we know about the environment beyond our grasp.

But we can’t have it both ways. Either we decide that we are willing to recognize images for what they do differently than words and for the ways they provide us a different sense of what is going on in the world, and we let them do that, or we pull them from the environment.

But we can’t do what we are doing now. What we are doing now at some level is not honest. I don’t mean to say that President Obama is being duplicitous — I recognize the difficulty of the decision. But what I’m saying here is that we’ve got the pictures of the whole White House team watching the videos, and looking at pictures that we are told we can’t see.

(More on TIME.com: “Is It O.K. to Feel Happy About Osama bin Laden’s Death?”)

When you’re given a pictures that has somebody looking at something beyond the frame, it forces the viewer to imagine what is going on. It pushes the imagination, it pushes conspiracy, and all the stuff that they don’t want to be pushing.

Q: Speaking of that White House photo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pictured in the Situation Room watching the raid with her hand over her mouth, and there’s speculation about what she’s seeing.

A: This conversation about Hillary’s hand over her mouth is so telling. Was she putting her hand up because she was horrified? She says she might have been stifling a cough. But the fact that we’re talking about it is data about how much the imagination can be fed and driven when you pull particular pieces of the record that are so central to a news story.