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Public editor: When is it appropriate to publish pictures of death?

A Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate on Sept. 13, 2012, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

We heard from a reader this morning who expressed disgust over our publication of a photo of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The cutline with the photo read: Libyan civilians carry unconscious (Stevens) to a medical centre after he was injured in the attack. Mr. Stevens, shown at left (with another photo of him at work), later died of asphyxiation.

Our reader called the photo horrific and tabloid and said Mr. Stevens was clearly not alive at the time. Firstly, I don't believe that is so. The photographer who was there on the scene of the attack reported in his cutline information that Mr. Stevens was unconscious and therefore alive. The fact that a number of Libyan civilians are trying apparently desperately to get him to medical aid suggest they too had evidence he was alive.

I wasn't part of the debate last night about whether and where to run such an image. Our photo policy says that these decisions are to be made by senior editors and this was.

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Elena Cherney, The Globe and Mail's managing editor, said there was a very long discussion about whether and where to use the photo of the unconscious ambassador. "While there was news value to running the photograph to show the circumstances around his death, we were sensitive to the sensitivities of showing someone in such a condition, which is why the photograph did not run on the front page."

Our photo policy states that: "Showing dead bodies, bloodied victims and traumatized survivors of bombings, massacres and other tragedies is justified, provided the image is historically relevant and/or advances the story in a serious and considered manner; conveys information relevant to the story; and is not intended primarily to shock readers or viewers."

I also believe this policy was followed. He was not dead or bloodied. While the image was without question upsetting and disturbing, it was not graphic. The most interesting aspect of this photograph is the fact that at least four Libyan civilians, perhaps neighbours or perhaps demonstrators, jumped in to help Ambassador Stevens and to try to carry him to safety. That shows the complexity of this story and the humanity on the part of some at the demonstration.

In the end I think the decision was reasonable and that it was good the image was not on the front page where it is much more difficult to look away from an upsetting photo. Had I been part of the debate, I might have offered a few points against running it, such as the fact that we know he is dead and there is no need to show it. Or that he seems close to death and the moment of death is more a private than a public moment.

We have published photos of death or near death when it is newsworthy. Last year, we ran a photo of Moammar Gadhafi alive but covered in blood as he was pulled from a truck by a mob before being beaten to death. In 2004, we ran a photo of the bodies of Americans who had been killed, burned and mutilated by an enraged mob in Fallujah with at least two corpses left hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The barbarity of that act was newsworthy.

What is your view on this? Are we right to publish such photos? Is our basic policy correct? Is there a higher standard for the front page photos?

Please comment below or send me an e-mail on this or anything else you see to publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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