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Official government portrait of the late U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. AP published graphic photographs depicting Bernard, injured and dying in Afghanistan, despite his family's plea for privacy.

What do you do when two rules of ethical journalism seem to be at odds with each other? That is the central question in the debate over the the Associated Press’ use of a tragic photo of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard, despite his family’s plea for privacy.

The Digital Journalist reveals their take on the issue in this September article: They believe the AP made the right choice.

Julie Jacobson, an Associated Press photojournalist embedded with the U.S. military, photographed the Marine moments after he had been mortally wounded in Afghanistan. Despite a phone call from U. S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on behalf of the family not to release the photo, the AP published it (after giving the family advanced notice).

“We argue that the harm to the family is undeniably severe and thoroughly regrettable. However, it is not enough to allow the family or the government veto power over the distribution of the image of the injured Marine. The Associated Press made the correct decision in not caving to the pressure,” Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus write.

Journalists are bound to report honestly on the reality and magnitude of human experience.  At the same time, they must take care to show good taste when covering subjects of tragedy or grief and avoid “pandering to lurid curiosity,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.

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“Common decency tells us that adding to this family’s misery is just wrong. On the other hand, American citizens have a need and a right to know the outcomes of their collective decisions,” the authors write. “The two stakeholders most likely to be injured by a decision whether to circulate the image are the Bernard family and the American public, for different reasons.”

Slattery and Doremus contend that the need for this photo to properly and honestly inform the public outweighs the harm caused to Corporal Bernard’s family.

“Critics will argue that the photo is tasteless and adds no value to the story,” they say. “Not so. If everyone knew what the actual horror of war looked like, the image would not shock or appall… The image of the injured Marine forces us, as citizens, to ask ourselves what we are going to do about our war.”

Yet, a similar argument might have been made if the Associate Press had made a decision not to publish the photograph. Who is to say which interest or injury outweighs the other?

Read Doremus and Slattery’s full take in The Digital Journalist here.

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AP was right to publish photo of Marine Lance Corporal Bernard, says The Digital Journalist

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