BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Lately, violence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia has taken a particularly gruesome turn. With increasing frequency, insurgents have been kidnapping independent contractors, members of the military and anyone else who represents foreign interests. They film their capture, their imprisonment, and in some cases, their execution. But when that horrifying footage makes its way to the news media via the internet or increasingly from the insurgents themselves, editors face the tough decision of whether or not to run the images. Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland School of Journalism, told the Los Angeles Times that any news outlet that makes images available of the actual beheadings is itself complicit, quote, "essentially finishing the work of the terrorists by delivering their grisly message." Joe Strupp, senior editor for Editor and Publisher, wrote in a recent column that Kunkel's view displayed a shoot-the-messenger mentality. He joins me in the studio, and on the phone is Lynnell Burkett, editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express News. In her column, she said that she thinks Kunkel has a point. Welcome to both of you.
Lynnell Burkett: Thank you.
JOE STRUPP: Thank you. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Lynell, let me start with you. Why does Tom Kunkel have a point?
Lynnell Burkett: Well, what the terrorists are trying to do is terrorize, and they can't do that unless the message is delivered, so while I really think he went further than I would have gone, he does make us think about what our responsibility is. We have to think about whether we're being used and whether delivering the message overrides that.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Joe, what about that? Nobody likes to be a tool of any news source, much less terrorists.
JOE STRUPP: I think when you get to the point where you start withholding images, that you are in many ways withholding part of the news. If you decide, well I'm not going to show this image; maybe it's too grisly and graphic -- that's one thing. But if you're going to say I don't want to, quote, "be complicit in this," that's almost censorship, because the job of a newspaper or broadcast outlet is to show the news, and if this is newsworthy, it is newsworthy.
BOB GARFIELD: Lynell, let me ask you about sort of extending the logic of Tom Kunkel's argument. If you say that the manufactured aspect of these beheadings make them not actually news -- some other animal -- you would have to say that, for example, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were not news-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
Lynnell Burkett: Well, now--
BOB GARFIELD: -- because they were intended to generate coverage.
Lynnell Burkett: Right. And I'm not arguing for not covering them. Definitely not. It definitely is news. But editors have to make the decision whether to convey that news appropriately it requires that the images be printed, and I don't think it is necessary to print the images in order to convey the news, because I think people know what a beheading is without having to see it on your breakfast table. And I think that if you do wish to see it, then there are plenty of outlets on the internet that you can do that.
BOB GARFIELD: And I must say I've certainly had access to all of those outlets but have made a point not to see any of the beheadings--
Lynnell Burkett: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: -- for the, exactly the reason you cite. I don't need to see the pictures to understand what has taken place.
Lynnell Burkett: Exactly. In my column, I asked our readers the question, you know, what do you think. They about 3 to 1 agreed to that decision and said, you know, thank you -- I don't want to see that in my morning paper.
BOB GARFIELD: What about the responsibility, though, for news organizations to print the visual truth come what may for the very purpose of confronting its readers and viewers to say here is reality -- deal with it. Or, actually, do they even have that right?
Lynnell Burkett: Let me liken it to running news of car wrecks or murders. I mean we run stories that report on those kind of things, but that doesn't mean we want a, a picture of dead bodies from murders or car wrecks in the paper.
JOE STRUPP: But there are ways to do this without offending people. Several years ago, when the Oklahoma bombing occurred, and there was a famous photo of a firefighter holding a dead baby--
Lynnell Burkett: Right.
JOE STRUPP: -- and I believe it won a Pulitzer Prize - the Philadelphia Inquirer ran it up big; a couple papers didn't run it, because they thought it was too offensive. The San Francisco Chronicle at the time ran it, I believe, inside with a warning on the front. You know, again, there are ways to handle this, but you still give the reader/viewer a chance to see what the news is.
BOB GARFIELD: We're clearly in a political environment now so polarized that no matter what an editor does for any kind of professional reasons will be deemed by a certain part of the audience as having some sort of political motivation.
Lynnell Burkett: Absolutely true. The debate has been presented in terms of the mainstream media doesn't have any problem with showing pictures of the Abu Ghraib torture, but yet you won't show the beheadings, and therefore you're being unfair to the American soldiers in Iraq, and you're not showing what the terrorists are doing.
JOE STRUPP: Yeah. And we've gotten the same reactions, and we were just writing about it. We weren't the ones running the photos. It was the Washington Post.
Lynnell Burkett: Right.
JOE STRUPP: And we were getting reaction from people, angry that - how dare you put American lives at risk, you know, by running these photos? You get sympathy for some Iraqis. You get the Iraqis mad at the Americans, and that that is somehow some treasonous act.
Lynnell Burkett: Exactly.
JOE STRUPP: Which we all know it isn't, but it plays into the same mentality -- that if the Washington Post or another newspaper gave in to that pressure, what's to say it's any different giving in to pressure not to run a beheading photo? The paper or broadcast outlet has to stand their ground and not fall prey to the pressures that could be political, that could be censorship, that could be just one person's taste versus another, and in the end, offering the image or the news is a better "error," quote/unquote than censoring it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well this week, it became clear that the ethical question is getting only more complicated. Reporter Michael Ware of Time Magazine, it turns out, has been sent tape after tape -- not only of murders of hostages, but of their actual maneuvers. Lynell, the, the insurgents send you a tape of an operation in progress -- do you have the responsibility to tell the world that?
Lynnell Burkett: Okay. The key is whether we are being used to further the purpose of the group, and--
JOE STRUPP: Can I just, can I just step in and -- isn't, isn't the news media, quote, "used" in a lot of different ways -- whenever a politician makes a speech--
Lynnell Burkett: Yes. [LAUGHS]
JOE STRUPP: -- or goes on the campaign trail or--
Lynnell Burkett: You're right. You're absolutely right on that.
JOE STRUPP: -- a group has a protest -- they're using the media to get their word out -- and I know what you're saying, and it's important, I believe to understand that. But you could probably make that argument for a lot of things the news media covers.
Lynnell Burkett: I agree that we are used and that we have to evaluate the significance of that at, at any given time.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, let's leave it there. Lynnell Burkett, thank you very much.
Lynnell Burkett: Bye, bye.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe, thanks very much.
JOE STRUPP: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lynnell Burkett is editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express News; Joe Strupp is senior editor at Editor and Publisher.