AP photo of dying Marine sparks outrage
The soldier's family had asked the photo not be published.
Sep. 15, 2009
A photo released last week of a U.S. Marine dying in Afghanistan has ignited controversy over the limits of wartime reporting and journalistic respect for soldiers in combat.
The photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson, shows Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard with serious leg injuries after he was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush Aug. 14. Bernard, 21, of New Portland, Maine, was taken to a field hospital where he later died from those injuries.
In a statement on its Web site, the AP said it waited until after Bernard's Aug. 24 burial and said a reporter had met with Bernard's family and showed them the photo, along with others Jacobson had taken that day. The AP stated Bernard's father, John Bernard, had asked the reporter not to release the photo.
AP Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski said in the statement running the photo was necessary as part of accurate and complete reporting on the conflict in Afghanistan.
"We understand Mr. Bernard's anguish," he said. "We believe this image is part of the history of this war," Daniszewski said. "The story and photos are in themselves a respectful treatment and recognition of sacrifice."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote a letter to AP President and CEO Tom Curley asking him not to use the photo out of respect for the family's request.
"Why your organization would purposely defy the family's wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me," Gates said in the letter. "Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple newspapers is appalling."
Paul Lester, a photojournalism ethics professor at California State University, Fullerton, said AP had made the right decision in waiting to publish the photo until after Bernard's burial and contacting his family, but ultimately the decision to publish rested with the press.
"I think they should get a say," Lester said. "But the decision whether or not to use the photo should not be rooted in their approval."
The American Legion was one of several veterans groups to condemn the publishing of the photo. Spokesman John Raughter said American photographers should not show photos of dying soldiers, in the same way they are not allowed to take pictures of enemy combatants at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"It's disrespectful to the families and it sends a sad message," Raughter said.
Jacobson justified her actions as giving an objective view of the soldiers' lives in Afghanistan.
"To ignore a moment like that simply would have been wrong," she said in an AP news release. "I was recording his impending death, just as I had recorded his life moments. Death is a part of life and most certainly a part of war. Isn't that why we're here? To document for now and for history the events of this war?"
Silver Star Families of America, a Clever-based organization that honors soldiers wounded and killed in battle, issued a statement condemning the photo's release. Steve Newton, the group's founder, said he was taken aback when he saw it.
"It made me sick to my stomach," Newton said. "In my opinion, dying is a moment between you and your god, and not one that should be broadcast to the world."
The photo may be seen here. This photo is graphic, and some may find its content disturbing.