Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Knight Case Studies Initiative and Photojournalism

Last January, I wrote about the Knight Case Studies Initiative, a method for teaching journalism developed at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The case-studies method — long used in schools of business, law, and medicine — presents students with real-world dilemmas faced by professionals in their day-to-day work.

The goal of the method is to foster what Kirsten Lundberg, director of the Knight Case Studies Initiative, calls critical judgment, by exposing journalism students to some of the same situations faced by their professional counterparts.

Lundberg visited the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Jan. 13 to discuss her program with our faculty. At that time, all of the case studies available through the Knight Case Studies Initiative involved print journalism.

Photojournalism Presents Ethical Dilemmas

I asked Lundberg if the world of photojournalism might not present some of the rich and complex ethical dilemmas that make successful case studies. Lundberg said she thought it would.

The Knight Case Studies Initiative has just created its first case study based on an issue involving photojournalism. Called “Worth a Thousand Words: The Associated Press and Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard,” the case involves a photojournalist, a fatally wounded Marine, and an organization that calls itself “one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering.”

This case was written for the Knight Case Studies Initiative by Kathleen Gilsinan; her faculty sponsor was John Smock, adjunct associate professor at The Journalism School, Columbia University.

The facts of the case first came to my attention via an article written by Donald R. Winslow, editor of News Photographer, the magazine of the National Press Photographers Association.

Pentagon Uproar Over Photograph

Winslow’s article, “New Afghanistan Embed Rule Bars Photographing Troops Killed in Action,” describes “a Pentagon uproar” that followed the AP’s distribution of a photograph showing Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard, U.S. Marine Corps, moments after he was struck and mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. Bernard was evacuated but died in a hospital the same evening.

The photograph was made during a battle on Aug. 14, 2009, by Julie Jacobson, an embedded AP photographer. Jacobson transmitted her photograph to the AP on Aug. 17, after learning that Bernard’s family had been notified of his death.

To Distribute or Not?

According to the Knight case study, there was intense discussion at the AP over whether to distribute the photograph — and if it was distributed, how to place it in an appropriate context, using text and other images.

A few days after Bernard’s Aug. 24 funeral, an AP reporter visited the Marine’s family for an interview and brought Jacobson’s photograph with him.

The AP was not seeking permission from the family — rather, showing them the photograph was a courtesy and a way to let the family know that the news organization was considering distributing the image.

At first, the family expressed no objections. Later, however, Bernard’s father, himself a former Marine and veteran of the first Gulf War, asked the AP not to distribute the photograph.

Although sensitive to the family’s concerns, the AP decided to distribute Jacobson’s photograph as part of a multimedia story package, including a slideshow narrated by Jacobson, describing the Aug. 14 battle that took Bernard’s life.

The package was distributed by the AP on the morning of Sept. 3, 2009. The package was embargoed for 24 hours to allow for thoughtful consideration of the material by editors at the receiving media outlets.

The Pentagon Weighs In

Before distributing the package, the AP sent it to the Pentagon. This was done to alert the Defense Department about the potentially controversial nature of the photograph and not to seek the government’s permission to distribute newsworthy material.

On the afternoon of Sept. 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called AP CEO Tom Curley and asked him to withdraw the photograph. Curley listened to what Gates had to say and then told AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll that the final decision rested with her.

Ultimately, the AP decided that the photograph was a truthful representation of the war in Afghanistan, and that the news organization’s responsibility was to serve its members and the public rather than the Defense Department.

On Sept. 4, Gates sent Curley an open letter in which he termed the decision to distribute the photograph “appalling” and condemned the AP for what he called the organization’s “lack of compassion and common sense.”

Bernard’s father called the AP’s decision “inexcusable.”

Embed Rules in Flux

At the time Jacobson made her photograph, the rules for embedded photojournalists did not prevent the media from covering casualties, as long as the images were not distributed or published before next of kin could be notified.

It was three weeks between Bernard’s death and the date the photograph was sent over the AP wire, and next of kin had been notified.

However, following distribution of Jacobson’s photograph, the embed rules for eastern Afghanistan were changed to prohibit photography and videography of U.S. personnel killed in action, according to Wilson’s article in News Photographer.

About two weeks later, the rules were again rewritten — images of battle casualties would be allowed, provided the dead were not identifiable. Images of wounded soldiers would require the soldier’s permission.

Historical Coincidence

It is a historical coincidence that photography and mass warfare came of age together in the 19th century — some of the most famous early photographs were taken on Civil War battlefields. The public surely knows that soldiers die.

But the military has never been comfortable with the dissemination of images showing American war dead. During World War II, Life magazine refrained from publishing photographs showing dead GIs until 1943, when it ran George Strock’s cover photograph of three dead soldiers on Buna Beach, New Guinea.

Perhaps the U.S. government, after initially censoring the photograph, saw its propaganda value at a time when American support for the war and the sale of War Bonds had somewhat waned.

The Lessons of Vietnam

During the Vietnam War, journalists were generally free to go anywhere they could hitch a ride, and their stories and images were not censored. As a result, the world was granted a first-hand look at the war through some of the finest journalism ever produced.

Many in the U.S. military, however, blamed the free-ranging and often critical press for the war’s declining popularity at home. The “lessons of Vietnam” — which the military vows to remember each time the U.S. enters another war — apparently include keeping the press on a short leash.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, the military censored images it deemed too graphic for the American public. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the military gave media outlets the opportunity to embed reporters and image-makers — provided they agreed to certain limitations. That policy was also applied to the war in Afghanistan.

Although photojournalists have been covering the war in Afghanistan since 2001, and have been in Iraq since 2003, only “a handful of images” of American war dead have been published in the American press, according to a 2008 New York Times article by Michael Kamber and Tim Arango.

Jacobson’s photograph of the mortally wounded Bernard appeared on the AP website but hardly anywhere else in the mainstream media.

Exploring Complex Issues

The Knight Case Studies Initiative is using the photograph of Lance Corporal Bernard to explore a number of complex issues.

Photojournalists are often placed in situations where doing their job may conflict with any number of other compelling human demands, such as rendering aid, respecting privacy, and avoiding sensationalism and voyeurism.

War photographers must also consider personal safety, the safety of the troops, and the impact of their images on those who view them—including the public at home, the military, the families of the men and women in uniform, and also the enemy.

Under what circumstances does the obligation to make images that inform people at home about a war being fought in their name and with their blood and treasure outweigh other concerns?

And when is it permissible to put the camera away — in effect, to censor oneself?

The news organization, in this case the AP, also had some tough decisions to make. Does a disturbing photograph tell an important story, or is it just a shocking image devoid of background or context? Did AP officials make a mistake when they notified Bernard’s family and the Defense Department?

Does the government ever have the right to censor the work of journalists? If so, is war a special case, or would the same issues apply in a situation of, say, domestic terrorism or environmental catastrophe?

What Would You Do?

With the introduction of photojournalism in the Knight Case Studies Initiative, future photographers, videographers, and editors now have a chance to compare their critical judgment against what professionals did in a real-life situation. This will benefit all journalism education and, ultimately, journalism itself.

Try putting yourself in the situation of the various players in this drama — the photographer, the officials at AP, the father of the dead Marine, the Secretary of Defense, or the picture editor at your local newspaper. What would you do? I’d love to hear from you.

One Response to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Knight Case Studies Initiative and Photojournalism”

  1. If photojournalists covering the Vietnam war were under the same restrictions as those working today in Iraq and Afghanistan, how much longer would the Vietnam war have lasted?

    War is horrific. Don't the larger truths that must be conveyed outweigh everything else? Restricting access and censoring images only serves to keep the public in the dark.

    "And when is it permissible to put the camera away — in effect, to censor oneself?"

    You are a human being first and that call takes precedent when you are the only person who can help.

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