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Thoughts on 9/11 About Dead Bodies

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First, here is a great tribute to those who died on 9/11.

I’ve been thinking for the last day about dead bodies and whether it is ever appropriate for them to be shown on television or on newspapers.

But let me back up.

I have been thinking about 9/11, the war inIraq, Katrina and issues raised in a current discussion at Press Think. There were several comments in the discussion I want to go back and comment on but right now I just want to try to convey a thought and it is this:

Sometimes a dead body IS the story.

This seemingly gruesome topic and issue arose after FEMA issued a directive/order/request that the news media not show dead bodies from Katrina. Some were offended and insulted by the request while others pointed out how terrible it would be for someone to see a relative on a screen or newspaper before they knew they were did.

There is something to be said for both sides.

Over at PressThink, Kilgore Trout made a decent point:

I don’t know anyone who is for FEMA suppressing photos of dead people, but I think the government is correct if it believes that the MSM is too immature to use the photos wisely.

Again, let me say I am NOT for the suppression of photos of the Katrina flood victims, but I certainly understand the paranoia the government must feel. Also, I have many relatives in the NO area, who thankfully got out OK, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about a photo of my Uncle Don floating in sewer water beamed all over the universe, and the subsequent hosannahs for the photographer who took the picture and won the Pulitzer (or whatever photojournalists win). All this is more complex than what journalists “want” and “need”. Sorry, it needed to be said.

Jenny D, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite posters (plus, she too has switched from journalism to education) wrote this response:

I think that showing victims needs some kind of more general approach. For example, should you show victims whose families might not know they are dead, and might find out through TV? Is there a level of gruesomeness that is acceptable? On the History Channel you can see the terrible film from the first soldiers to arrive at Dachau, in which bodies are piled like cord wood. That is powerful footage, and the point was to illustrate the horror and cruelty of the Nazis. Would the point of showing victims be to demonstrated the killing power of a hurricane? Or to show that the Bush Administration sucks? Or to embarrass the mayor and governor who couldn’t protect citizens? Or is to sell papers or get people to watch a cable news channel? I don’t know the answer. I’m curious what people think.

And therein lies the debate.

Let me toss out one other great comment from that discussion:

Absent Seymour Hersh type leaks, accurate treatment of a one party state that refuses to reveal what it is actually doing is impossible by definition. Accuracy and facts are the enemy of incompetent totalitarians. So of course the press is their enemy, regardless of how much they toady up to the administration and blithely repeat bald-faced, counterfactual spin from “anonymous White House sources” without consequence.

Most of the newspapers I worked for had policies against showing dead bodies, especially any that were easily identifiable. And that makes sense and seems fair. And yet I’ve been thinking about this and thought back to some past events:

Who can forget the images of the soldier in Somalia dragged around on the ground? Some have suggested that footage is what ultimately led to the American departure.

When I think of all the footage of 9/11, it’s the people jumping out windows and landing…well, those are some of the most disturbing lasting images of that terrible day.

And with Katrina, the image that to me most crystalized how destructive the force was, how life in New Orleans had changed so dramatically, that proved that even the simplest kindnesses had been tossed out the window because of the chaos, was the image of a woman, dead, lying in a wheelchair. I think it was outside the convention center or the stadium.

The next day I read that she still sat there.

And I remember thinking, “Wow! If they can’t even move that woman to a temporary morgue, if she is just sitting there like that, then this really is such an unreal situation there.”

Was there something tasteless and unseemly about taking and/or publishing those images? Maybe.

But were those images ones that spoke volumes about the situation? Definitely.

There is a scene in Control Room – which I just finished leading a discussion on – in which Al Jazeera is criticized for showing images of injured America POWs and injured and dead Iraqi civilians.

An Al Jazeera representative explained that war is not simple and clean and sometimes it is needed to show just how bloody the consequences can be. And as gross and tasteless and offensive as those images may be the logic makes some sense.

We need to be reminded sometimes of the ugliness of the human condition, of the consequences of our actions, as well as those of Mother Nature. I don’t know that there can be a rule established for when it is and isn’t appropriate, which is why FEMA’s interference in the issue rightly raises hackles.

Maybe it’s like the famous description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

I think some press critics are bothered at such a subjective matter being left in the hands of others but sometimes that’s the way it has to work. Words seem inadequate for this topic – or maybe it’s the cold medication I’m on – so let me end with a post by Lex from the PressThink discussion, responding to Jenny D’s question:

To answer JennyD’s question directly: At bottom, the dead bodies ARE the story of this hurricane. Government (at all levels) performed ineffectually and/or corruptly — for whatever reason, less well than we had been led to believe it would perform — and PEOPLE DIED AS A DIRECT RESULT.

Simple accountability — hell, simple justice — dictates that you show the pictures. Doing this story without pictures would be like talking about 9/11 and not talking about death.

One final thought:

Speaking of death….

On a day when many are remembering loved ones killed on this terrible day my thoughts keep returning to my father, who died from melanoma cancer about six years ago. I miss him so damn much sometimes and now is one of those times.

I keep thinking about something he did that said so much about who he was and how he thought.

He took the idea of “knowledge is power” to a new level when – after using magazines, newspapers and books all his life to help make difficult decisions, be it choosing a car or whatever – after learning he had melanoma, he got books from the library and learned all he could about that which could kill him.

But that time all the information in the world couldn’t stop cancer, that vicious bastard, from taking him prematurely from us. Sometimes life is just so unfair, be it due to cancer, Katrina, terrorists or whatever.

Ed/Pub:LM

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://cranialcavity.net/wordpress/index.php marc

    Jenny D makes a good point. It is common practice for those killed in various ways to have the nanme released to the press until the relatives are notified.

    Why then, CNN in this case after filing suit, is it permissable for a news organization to show an un-named dead body via TV or on front pages of newpapers when: 1. a relative may recognize the person and 2. until seeing the image had no idea they were dead?

    Secondly in CNN’s case I find it strange that they adamitly refused to show falling bodies from the WTC but are clamoring, and filing suit, to show them now from New Orleans.

    Is it because people leaping to their deaths from WTC would rally Americans against the Jihadist cut throats and for the President?

    And bodies floating in New Orleans can be painted as a FEMA/Bush/Brown etc failure?

    I can’t answer with authority, but given past performance by the media I have little trust they would show any restraint or respect for the dead or their relatives.

  • Anne

    Rather disappointed; you worked for a paper yet you don’t bring up the fact that for reasons strictly relative to principle the press has the right to photo and chronicle search and recovery in NO?

    What they do with it is not an issue I care to discuss, really. But what’s important is that no government entity can supercede our First Amendment rights. Period.

  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    I thought that was assumed but thanks for making it explicitly clear.

    I was more interested in not the legal issue of whether the press has the right to free speech but the ethical issue of whether it SHOULD print dead body photos.

    Marc, you raise good points.

  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    If you want to read one of the best damn pieces on Katrina written, read this piece by Matt Taiibi.
    Warning: Adult language.
    Reminds me a bit of Hunter Thompson’s style.

  • mary waller

    people should not just talk they should take a stand my son deid in 9/11 and i have fought through a lot in my life but i will not just sit here i will take a stand for him.

  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    What stand are you taking?

  • copysquirl

    Free speech is a basic right – that includes visuals – if the reporters and news agencies of America would stick to printing the stories at all costs we wouldn’t be in the situations we’re in today. Knowledge is indeed power, and if it’s offensive – don’t look.

  • JeremyJessicaPendley

    People who question why the bodies of 9/11 arent bieng shown just want to see those pictures for intertainment. I think we would not be showing the respect for the victoms if we displayed thier bodies for entertainment. why else would we want to see them?

  • gabbi

    all i want to say is that what happen on 9/11 was something very sad that we may never forget and the families will always remember those who now are gone and gone to be to a better place which is heaven.

    my message to you is to tell you that blessed are those who believe in jesus and if you are one of the most who lost someone on that day please now that they went to a better place and to watch over their love ones. bless you all.

  • John

    Waiting until after victim’s families and friends are notified (and preferably, have had time to grieve), is needed. But I do believe we need to be mature enough to see the reality of death, even the violent. It would help us to know and feel deeply what is going on in our world. There was no discussion in the article here of how U.S. culture is more afraid of death in general. In older and more mature cultures, such as E.U. countries for example, photos of the dead are much more common. Also, I fear there is too much control of the media. Especially with the current political and corporate regime.