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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Los Angeles Times' publication of graphic photos against Pentagon's wishes stirs debate on media ethics



After delaying publication of graphic photos depicting U.S. soldiers posing with corpses in Afghanistan, on Wednesday, April 18, the Los Angeles Times went ahead and ran the images, despite objections from the Pentagon, explained The New York Times, prompting debate about the responsibility of the media in informing the public versus protecting national security.

At the Pentagon's request, the LA Times had held off on publishing the photos until measures could be put in place to ensure the soldiers pictured could be protected, according to Poynter.

The photos, of a 2010 deployment in Afghanistan, were given to the newspaper by a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division. The Pentagon urged the newspaper not to publish the photos, contending that they would incite violence, the Associated Press reported.

In a note from the newspaper's reader's representative, Los Angeles Times Editor Davan Maharaj explained the decision to run the photos against the Pentagon's wishes: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

Questioning what responsibility newspapers have to national security when "weighed against informing the public," the Christian Science Monitor consulted media experts and ethicists, some of whom said the LA Times should have listened to the Pentagon, while others noted that U.S. journalists' graphic depictions of the Vietnam War helped turn public sentiment against the conflict and bring troops home.

An editorial in the Washington Post commended the LA Times for its due diligence -- it "checked with the Pentagon on the story, it vetted the photos, and it showed restraint in publishing only 'a small but representative selection' of the photos, in the words of Maharaj" -- and noted that "the more we know about these photos, the Marine corpse-urination situation and Abu Ghraib, the better." And if reprisals against the soldiers do arise, the Los Angeles Times is not who should be blamed, the editorial said.



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