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Star Tribune, Pioneer Press pass on gruesome Afghan War photo

While other news sites nationwide showed an AP photo of a Marine mortally wounded, the local dailies did not. What was behind their decision?
By David Brauer

On Friday, the Associated Press sent out an acutely controversial image. Though it would later be labeled a “death photo,” the blurry image of an open leg wound actually featured Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard when he was barely alive, just after he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. He would later die on a field hospital operating table.

Bernard’s family objected strongly to the “disrespectful” photo’s publication (which was also included in this slide show narrated by photographer Julie Jacobson). Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked AP to self-censor the image. The wire service, which met with Bernard’s parents, waited until the soldier was buried to send AP members the full package, which included a long feature on his unit and the casualty.

As AP itself later noted, at least 20 papers used the story on the front page, but only a few used the photo, relegating it to an inside page with explanatory notes. As the Wheeling (W. Va.) Intelligencer editors wrote:

“Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense,” the newspaper wrote. “We believe it is important for all of us to understand that behind the numbers are real men and women, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice, for us.”

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Even papers that didn’t run it ran explanations, including Bernard’s hometown paper in Portland, Maine.

So what call did the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press make?

Neither ran the story in their print editions, and it didn’t show up on the PiPress’ The feature did pop up on — sans photos.

Strib deputy managing editor Cory Powell, who supervises design and visuals, notes the story popped up on without human intervention — AP stories flow automatically into the Strib’s publishing system, but it sounds like someone had to manually link to the photos. They didn’t.

The PiPress system is not as automatic, said PiPress senior online editor Chris Clonts (who acknowledged this wasn’t necessarily a best practice).

He said editors that day concentrated on two breaking war stories: one from staffer Frederick Melo on a Burnsville G.I. who died in Iraq, and the other a wayward NATO airstrike that apparently killed dozens of civilians. (Bernard’s death had occurred three weeks earlier.)

Should the local news orgs have published the image? As Powell notes, “It’s pretty powerful and really gives a sense of the chaos of action.”

The family and critics have legitimate objections, though I think accusing the AP of money-grubbing (as others have done) misses the point. Controversies like this rarely enhance profits and often cost subscribers — both dailies avoided angry emails and phone calls as they cruised into Labor Day weekend.

The wire-service treatment was not sensational, and served far larger civic interests. The public sees too few examples of the horror of war, and that lack of reality causes bigger problems down the road. Next time, at least one local news leader should be bolder.