What about that photo of bin Laden?

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor

Published:

 
photoLou Brancaccio
photoBenito Mussolini

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If you were the editor, and you had the option to run a photo of a dead Osama bin Laden, what would you do? Vote on our poll by clicking here.

Even before there was an acknowledgment by the government that there was a photo of a dead Osama bin Laden, we began this discussion: If a photo is released and it’s grotesque, should we run it?

Look, we’re all different and we all have varying views on important topics. So I wasn’t completely surprised that there were more than a few folks who were against using it.

For me, it was a bit difficult but a relatively easy call:

“Run it.”

That’s not a callous decision or even an unfeeling decision. It would have been, in my view, the proper decision.

It’s true that 99 percent of the time, we wouldn’t run photos of dead people. But there are exceptions to every rule. If we believe the photo is not simply gratuitous but has some value — that it serves a purpose — then it should be considered.

And publishing a photo of a dead bin Laden would, indeed, serve a purpose. First, it would prove to the world that he is, in fact, dead.

But second, there is a little bit of “an eye for an eye” in most us. Do unto others and all of that.

As we saw thousands of Americans die on Sept. 11, those responsible weren’t debating philosophical ethics questions about who would be watching them die on live TV.

Also, this wouldn’t be the first time a dead bad guy ended up with a photo in the paper. A gruesome photo of Benito Mussolini hanging upside down made the rounds as World War II was winding down.

Any difference on the Web?

Well, what about the Web? Is there a different set of rules for a newspaper’s website? One of our editors expressed caution about using a dead bin Laden photo in our top Web position.

“Maybe if someone has to click through in order to see it, that would be better.”

This is actually a good approach to many controversial things on the Web: Force users to consciously decide to look at something. That’s what we do right now for comments to our stories. They don’t just pop up. You have to click on “view comments” to see them.

But in the end, I favored not doing that with a bin Laden photo. It was my sense that the photo is what Web users would have wanted to see. So there would have been no hunting around on our website. If you went to columbian.com, you would have seen it.

Again, not everyone in our newsroom would have agreed with this decision. So I’m certain not everyone would have agreed with it in our community.

But like so many things in our decision-making process here, we consider all the factors, take our best shot at making the right decision and then let the chips fall where they may.

Obama’s decision to hold

So did Obama make the wrong decision about not releasing the photo? No question in my mind, he should have released it.

First, any management 101 course teaches you this: If you don’t give folks the info they need, they’ll just make something up. That’s why you’re always better served to be honest and be up-front. Silence — or withholding info — simply means people will make it up.

That’s already happened with fake dead bin Laden photos on the Web.

Second, if it’s a tough call, always err on the side of releasing the info. In a free country, that’s the way it should be. Give us the information. Don’t hold it back.

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or lou.brancaccio@columbian.com.