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Ethics of Visual Evidence December 30, 2006

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Journalism.
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How will news of the execution today of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shape journalistic coverage and presentation decisions? Newsrooms face tough questions of taste and history in handling pictures or video of the hanging.

Saddam Hussein was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, in the deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims in the town of Dujail. Iraqi authorities say the execution was filmed and Iraqi state television say both still and video images of the execution would be released.

TV news executives expect these images to turn up on Web sites and there will be pressure to use pictures of the actual hanging. Taste and propriety are key guidelines as newsrooms fulfill obligations as journalists in documenting the event without going overboard in showing images.

Several US networks like ABC News and CBS will not allow their Web sites to show anything beyond what is permitted on television. Questions of what networks and their websites might show are hypothetical at this point.

The coverage of executions is ancient, going as far back as the execution of Socrates, and the Christian gospels, where the execution of Jesus, and its aftermath, has become iconic for hundreds of millions. There have been debates over time on how graphically to depict the execution of Jesus, right up until our own time when the movie by Mel Gibson re-introduced the question.

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President/Senior Scholar and Reporting Writing & Editing Faculty

Poynter Institute faculty have begun a conversation about these issues. You can join the conversation here

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