Sometimes routine coverage decisions draw unexpected backlash from readers; other times we spend hours wrestling with a decision that draws unexpected silence from readers. Last week, it was the latter.
On Monday, we led the paper with a story about the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel publishing photographs of two Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers posing with the dead body of an Afghan civilian. The soldiers are two of the five charged with murder in connection with an alleged “kill team” made up of Stryker soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.
The U.S. Army worked for months to keep the photographs from the public, saying their release could cause an anti-American backlash and endanger troops fighting overseas. Officials ordered soldiers of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to hand over the photos and kept them at the Lewis-McChord Criminal Investigation Division while the Army prepared to prosecute the soldiers.
One of the soldiers pictured, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, pleaded guilty last week to the killings and other misconduct and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. An attorney for the other soldier, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, wanted the photos released, believing they would help exonerate his client.
On Monday, military editor Matt Misterek asked about running the pictures in the TNT if they became available. Der Spiegel had posted them on its website, but hadn’t released them to The Associated Press or any of our other wire services.
On Tuesday morning, The Seattle Times published screen shots of the pictures from the Der Spiegel website alongside a story about the pictures. It was a publishing option we hadn’t considered.
First, we had to decide whether publishing them was the right thing to do.
The reasons not to publish were twofold: To begin with, the pictures were gruesome. We don’t routinely run pictures of corpses unless there’s a news-based reason to do so. These pictures were newsworthy because they illustrated the behavior of soldiers whose trials we’ve covered for months. If we ran them, we would put them inside the paper with a warning on the cover, so readers could choose to look at them or not.
Second, the Army said releasing the photos could endanger U.S. soldiers. We didn’t take that lightly. But the photos had been public for two days, and there had been no backlash. Unlike the surprise release of photographs from Abu Ghraib prison that showed U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqis (a few of which ran in the TNT), the Army had months to discuss these images with Afghan officials and had already begun to prosecute alleged crimes.
Our editors believed we should run the pictures. They told the story of the soldiers on trial in a way words alone could not. Misterek said they provided “clear evidence of soldiers dishonoring their uniforms and their country.”
“We could have simply described the photos with words, and that would have been less sickening,” he said, “but there’s a compelling reason why you should look at the photos, even if you’d rather turn away.”
Most important, we should have a high bar for withholding photographs or other information from readers. We need to handle the information responsibly, but our job is to inform the citizenry, not to parse the news.
The AP still hadn’t negotiated rights to the photos from Der Spiegel, so we took pictures of the magazine’s website and ran them alongside our story. “Fair use” doctrine allows that. We also linked online to the Der Spiegel website.
On Wednesday morning, I expected backlash.
One reader called so furious over the pictures that she canceled her subscription. Another wrote to thank me for running them. That was it.
Maybe news consumers have acquired a higher tolerance for graphic photos than we anticipated. Hopefully our readers saw the pictures as Misterek suggested – certainly not as representative of the behavior of our soldiers fighting overseas, but as a repugnant visual of behavior so bad, we must confront it in the hope it won’t happen again.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434