According to Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, there is a fine line to be considered when it comes to graphic images in the news. While it may be unethical and harmful to show every violent, disturbing image for the good of reporting the truth, there can be exceptions to the rule. The question of releasing the death photos of terrorist Osama Bin Laden might possibly be one of the most talked about exceptions that exists in current events today.
The United States government continues to refuse the release of the images since the assassination of Bin Laden in May, 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALs. The president of the public interest group Judicial Watch, Tom Fitton, claims that the Obama Administration’s secrecy is not founded in law. “I hope the court will understand that the law and the president’s own personal views aren’t necessarily the same thing in our constitutional republic,” states Fitton in a recent post on Biggovernment.com. Fitton does not see the reason in the government’s claim that showing the images may be seen as mockery by supporters of the late Al-Qaeda leader.
The Obama Administration’s fears might be justified. The release of Bin Laden’s death photos could trigger a violent response from his supporters. However, those who wish to see the images of Bin Laden believe that the United States government seems to be forgetting that its primary obligation should be directed towards the American people’s best interests.
It is a natural human response to want some assurance that a threat has been eliminated. There is no doubt that those who held jobs in city skyscrapers and government buildings experienced tremendous anxiety on their way to work following 9/11. Humans instinctively want to promote their own safety, so the idea that confirmation of Bin Laden’s death will bring peace of mind makes sense. An image of the deceased terrorist may be the easiest way to prove that his threatening existence was eliminated. However, thanks to modern technology it might not be so simple.
Unfortunately we do not live in a world where everything the government tells and shows its people can be blindly accepted as truth. If the government could invent an elaborate lie about Bin Laden’s assassination and burial at sea, it could just as easily create and manipulate an image to show his body postmortem. While those who would accept the images as proof will sleep better at night, conspiracy theorists will likely toss and turn like never before. It seems that the only people who know the truth are, and will remain, the men and women who were present at the time of the assassination. The Navy SEALs credited with the assassination continue to remain anonymous. Even if they come forward, will people believe them?
It is up to the individual to choose what they believe. The release of Bin Laden’s death photos will not make the choice any easier. Journalists in particular, will have a challenging decision before them if the images are eventually released to the public. Online and print writers alike must ask themselves an ethical question: Will including images of Osama Bin Laden’s death bring peace of mind to the masses, or will it offend those close to the deceased and fan the flames of conspiracy theories?
No one has the right to see extensive images of a rape and murder victim. Though the story is certainly newsworthy, it would be shameful to expect the victim’s friends and family to endure the pain of allowing those with no personal connection to see their loved one in such a state. Somewhere in the world there are people mourning Osama Bin Laden. Though it may seem outrageous to many Americans, their mourning is justified on some basic, human level; even if their loved one did abhor us and threaten the safety and way of life of millions. One of the most important ethical principles journalists must follow is to “do no harm.” Isn’t it possible that the media’s show-and-tell of Bin Laden’s death will do much more harm than good?