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News Execs Defend Their Use of Gruesome Images

News executives last week defended their decisions to air grisly photos of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's slain sons, calling the images an integral part of their coverage of the war in Iraq.

"An awful lot of people here want to see them as much as people in Iraq," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of CBS News'Evening News With Dan Rather.

Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC first started showing the graphic stills of Uday and Qusay Hussein, released by the U.S. government, last Thursday morning. TV news organizations received five or six photos, and most aired between two and four images. The sons were killed in a shootout with U.S. troops last Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul.

There were more gruesome pictures Friday morning, when cable news nets played new videotape of the bodies on display at Baghdad Airport.

None of the broadcast networks interrupted regularly scheduled programming, but CBS displayed a news crawl alerting viewers that the photos were available. CBS, ABC and NBC included brief glimpses on evening newscasts.

The willingness to display the images stood out in contrast to news organizations' hesitation earlier in the war to air graphic images of dead American soldiers. Certainly, these were photos the Bush administration wants the American public, as well as Iraqis, to see.

Last week's photos, news executives agreed, had significant news value. But two Washington stations, WRC-TV and WUSA-TV, did not carry the photos, and anchors nationwide warned viewers what they were going to see.

"When something is very important and very relevant to a big story, you sort of have to do it," said Murphy,
recalling CBS's decision in May 2002 to air pieces of a videotape made by the kidnappers of slain Wall Street Journal
journalist Daniel Pearl.

The cable news channels flashed the images often in the first hours, sometimes juxtaposing them with old pictures of the two men.

Online, the photos received different treatments. ABC News, CNN and MSNBC (which maintains NBC's news site) did not show them on their home pages. Instead, viewers were directed—with a disclaimer—to a link to view the images. In contrast, Fox News and CBS displayed the photos on their opening pages.

At the Poynter Institute think tank for journalism, broadcast pro Al Tompkins said he had heard from six stations (he wouldn't name them) that had decided not to air the images because they were too gruesome.

Whatever the policy, he urged news executives to communicate with their audiences. "If you don't use them, you should explain why," he said. And those that do should "limit the usage and justify why."