Military Censorship of Photographs

Originally published in Media Ethics Issues and Cases, second edition edited by Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins, Madison, WI: WCB Brown & Benchmark, 1994, pp. 212-215.

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

The United States has been engaged in military conflicts both honorable and questionable. Inspired by the need to report each war to an anxious public, journalists have traveled to the front lines to produce stories and pictures both supportive and critical. As the informational and emotional power of visual images has become more understood, military strategists and politicians have instituted various forms of censorship of images in an attempt to protect their troops and to control public opinion.

Termed "Desert Storm" by the military and the "Gulf War" by the media, the clash with Iraq over Kuwait was an example of the often tenuous relationship between government officials and journalists. Hundreds of journalists throughout the world were in Saudi Arabia covering the fight, but only about 100 made up the official military press pool. With more than 500,000 American troops in the area and fighting erupting on several fronts, newspapers, for example, relied on only 16 journalists to cover every ground unit in the country. Although most reporters accepted the fact that a pool was necessary, many were frustrated by the military's slowness in transporting the pool members to troubled areas. Once there, pool members were accompanied by an ever-present military escort.

Department of Defense ground rules signed by all journalists prohibited reporting that would in any way endanger the troops. A journalist had to get approval before attempting any story. Once the piece was completed, the story and pictures were subject to U.S. and allied military censorship. Although there was no stated prohibition against showing wounded or killed soldiers, some journalists were wondering halfway into the war why they had not "seen one picture of bloodshed (or) anyone who's dead yet." Charges of "news management" and a "credibility gap" between official and pool reporter accounts surfaced. Claiming that press pool restrictions were too harsh, nine U.S. publications and novelists asked for a federal court injunction against the Defense Department's pool procedures.

The Gulf War was difficult to cover. It was primarily an air campaign waged in the middle of the night using fast-moving aircraft carrying computer-guided missiles with video cameras in their nose cones to signal the result of their prearranged mission. The Iraqi government was extremely hostile to journalists, only allowing a handful of correspondents to report from their side of the conflict. The isolated nature of the terrain was a further barrier to full-access coverage. It was simply not possible to conveniently drive across the huge desert seeking front-line firefights as in previous wars.

Besides, it was quite dangerous to try such a mission as Bob Simon and his crew from CBS discovered. Simon and his associates decided to drive to Iraq through the desert on their own because they were frustrated by the military's strict censorship controls over their actions. They were soon captured by Iraqi forces and detained until the end of the conflict. Despite these dangers and restrictions, CNN's coverage of the night bombing of Baghdad was particularly impressive and the subsequent damage to buildings in that ancient city reported by Peter Arnett-the only American correspondent able to report with his words and images from Baghdad.

As never before, technology played a significant part in fighting and reporting the war. Arnett and others were able to report from the far-off country because of the use of a portable satellite transmitter. Photographers were able to quickly send their images to their waiting editors because of digital cameras and transmitters. Nevertheless, most still photographers and videographers were frustrated by their lack of access to any real fighting scenes. They were left to cover noncombat scenes involving soldiers drilling. Once the ground war had commenced, a few journalists found themselves riding along with the tank units. But most of the fighting occurred at night making it extremely difficult to record action scenes. Most of the pictures out of the fighting areas in Iraq were of the long lines of Iraqi prisoners captured by military forces.

One highly emotional picture that did get through military censors was taken by Detroit Free Press photographer David Turnley. Turnley was riding with the 5th MASH medical unit inside Iraq. A fierce firefight had recently erupted between Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division.

Turnley's helicopter filled with medical personnel and equipment touched down about 100 yards from a frantic scene. An American military vehicle had just taken a direct hit. Soldiers on the ground were upset as they said it had mistakenly been struck by a U.S. tank. The wounded were quickly retrieved from the vehicle and carried to the helicopter. Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz, suffering from a fractured hand, slumped into the helicopter. The body of the driver of Kozakiewicz's vehicle was placed on the floor of the helicopter inside a zippered bag. A medical staff member, perhaps thoughtlessly, handed the dead driver's identification card to Kozakiewicz. Turnley, sitting across from the injured soldier, recorded the emotional moment with his camera when Kozakiewicz realized that his friend was killed by the blast.

Later at the hospital, Turnley asked the soldiers their names. He also asked if they would mind if the pictures were published. They all told him to get the images published.

The rules of combat enforced by the military required that Turnley give his film to military officials for approval for publication. A day after the incident, Turnley learned that his editors had not yet received his negatives from the Defense Department officials. Military officials insisted that they were holding on to the film because the images were of a sensitive nature. They also said that they were concerned about whether the dead soldier's family had been informed of his death. Because of Turnley's argument that the family must have been informed by then, the officials released his film.

His photographs were eventually published in Detroit and throughout the world. The picture of Kozakiewicz crying over the loss of his friend was called the "Picture of the War" on the cover of Parade magazine. Several months after the war, Turnley spoke to Kozakiewicz's father, who had been in one of the first American military units in Vietnam. Reacting to the censorship of images by military officials, David Kozakiewicz explained that the military was "trying to make us think this is antiseptic. But this is war. Where is the blood and the reality of what is happening over there? Finally we have a picture of what really happens in war." For David Kozakiewicz, showing his son grieving over the death of a fellow fighter gave added meaning to the soldier's death.

Micro Issues:
1. Should the photographer have taken the picture?

2. Should the photographer have asked permission of the injured soldier to take the picture?

3. Does a picture of a grieving soldier belong on page one?

4. Should photographers be allowed to travel along with military personnel to the fighting fronts?

Middle-range Issues:
1. Would criticism be lessened if the image was run small and on an inside page?

2. If the soldier is not from your newspaper's local area, why should the picture run?

3. How would you as an editor react to a reader's complaining that the picture demoralizes America's war effort?

Macro Issues:
l. What moral philosophies influence an editor who uses the picture and a reader who complains about its use?

2. Does the military during a war have the right to censor images produced by a photographer?

3. Does "pool" coverage during a war offer the best solution for informing the public back home?

4. Should an editor wait to publish a picture of a dead person until relatives are informed? Why or why not?

5. Should journalists avoid taking and publishing images that criticize the nation's war effort?