Shocking AP Photo Was Justly Released

Earlier this month, the Associated Press, which is a world-wide cooperative agency, or wire service, that provides news coverage of a variety of events to member news organizations, released a photo that has caused quite a stir in the journalism and photography worlds.

The image in question was taken by Julie Jacobson, and it showed Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard, 21 of New Portland, Me., after a rocket-propelled grenade blew off a portion of his leg when a Taliban attacked his squad in August in Dahaneh, Afghanistan. The picture shows Bernard’s comrades attempting to help him and mend his wounds.

Lance Cpl. Bernard died later during surgery at a Marine compound.

The photo, according to The New York Times’ Lens Blog, was part of a series of photos showing what it was like to be fighting in the war.

Following Bernard’s death, the controversial image was shown to his father, John Bernard, who is a retired Marine first sergeant, according to the blog post titled “Behind the Scenes, To Publish or Not?” by David W. Dunlap that discussed the photo.

John Bernard said he didn’t want the photo ran because it would dishonor his son.

And so the controversy began.

Primarily the uproar has revolved around the fact that it is a graphic image that the family didn’t want published, so many photographers and journalists might say if the family doesn’t want the image out there the AP shouldn’t be allowed to run it.

However, that is not how the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution reads. It promises a free press, which means if the journalist in question obtained the photo via acceptable means then the AP has every right to release that photo.

Julie Jacobson shot the photo within the bound of what she is allowed to do as an embedded journalist.

According to the Lens Blog, she was following the rules the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Afghanistan, which says, “Casualties may be covered by embedded media as long as the service member’s identity and unit identification is protected from disclosure until OASD-PA [Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs] has officially released the name. Photography from a respectful distance or from angles at which a casualty cannot be identified is permissible.”

In a journal entry, Jacobson discusses the photo at length. One thing she acknowledges is that the photo wasn’t very technically sound, but she did shoot the picture from a distance and with thoughts of the family running through her mind.

However, she is a journalist, and she was there to do a job.

“To ignore a moment like that simply because of a phrase in section 8, paragraph 1 of some 10-page form would have been wrong,” she wrote in the journal. “I was recording his pending death, just as I had recorded his life moments before walking to the point in the bazaar.”

It is a journalist’s job to tell the whole story. Leaving something out, regardless of how negative some may see it, would be doing a disservice to the readers and to the professional, which is built around telling stories in order to keep the masses informed.

The question boils down to not one of legality but of ethics, which is very important in understanding the controversy because the whole situation could have been prevented had she not shot the picture.

She made the decision that her ethical stance was to cover all aspects of the war, so she shot the picture and submitted, even though, according to her journal entries, she knew the photo may never be published.

Shooting the photo was the right thing to do because it actually depicted what the war was like. Images such as Jacobson’s haven’t been seen very often during the eight years the war has raged on.

Jorge Ruiz, an ex-Marine from Glendale, Ariz., wrote AP because, according to a New York Times article, he worried “about the sanitation of war and the social implications of a lack of images showing what war is really like.”

“Death and the ugliness of war is not something we look forward to but a necessity to put the war in its proper context,” Ruiz said. “A picture is worth a thousand words. I applaud your courage to distribute the photo and the story of the death of Lance Cpl. Bernard.”

Ruiz makes a good point, especially if you consider the historical implications of similar war-time photos.

Had it not been for the media releasing the graphic images of the Vietnam Conflict, the war might not have ended as quickly as it did.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates seemingly disagrees and sided with the Bernard family by also pleaded with the AP not to run the photo. He even went as far as sending a letter to AP President and CEO tom Curley.

In the letter, Gates said he had always had a policy of allowing the media the access they needed, but he made it clear he didn’t think the image of Cpl. Bernard’s last minutes of life should be released.

“Earlier this year I lifted the ban on images of the return of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base,” he said in the letter. “I did so with one overriding thought in mind: to give families the opportunity to honor their fallen however they saw fit and for the American people to understand, to see, and to appreciate the enormity of their sacrifice . . . All we can do is pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and respect the wishes of their families. Publication of this image will do neither and will mark an unconscionable departure from the restraint that most journalists and publications have shown covering the military since September 11th . . . Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”

In his letter, Gates made some good points. He is right that the issue is not about law or policy, and it is about judgment.

Where he comes up short is that he doesn’t seem understand the journalistic process.

First, it is a journalist’s job to cover all sorts of news. Sometimes it is positive, and sometimes it is negative. Either way, though, it has to bee covered.

Also, just because AP releases the photo doesn’t mean it is going to automatically show up in the newspaper.

AP is just an organization that provides coverage of events. There is nothing that says all the content produced by AP and given to member news organizations must be used.

The newspapers and other news organizations are the final gatekeepers. It is up to them whether or not they should publish something. The AP is not at fault for simply giving the photo out.

Blaming them for simply fulfilling the role they play in the journalism world is like blaming the abundant number of fast-food restaurants on why people are fat. It is the decision of the people to eat there. The restaurants are just there to provide food for those who need it, just as AP provides content to those who need it.

So again it comes down to more of an ethical question. Sure, AP could have withheld the photo or the photographer could have simply not shot the photo, but should either of those things happened?

No. Those things shouldn’t have happened, and it is a great thing that they didn’t.

The photographer was doing her job by shooting the scene as it unfolded, and AP was doing its job by providing unique, insightful content about what is happening overseas as our soldiers fight to protect our country.

Dan Cahalan, an Afghanistan veteran, e-mailed AP and voiced his support of the photo, according to The New York Times.

“This is one of the realest accounts from a journalist I have ever read and just wanted to thank (Jacobson) for her honest reporting of the war,” he wrote.

Gates and the Bernard family believe the photo tarnishes what Lance Cp. Bernard did for our country by giving his own life.

That is a misnomer.

How often are statues erected in remembrance of someone who has died? Quite often.

Are obituaries printed in newspapers following someone’s death as a way to remember and honor their lives? Yes.

When are memorial services and funerals held to celebrate the life of a friend or family member? After they die, and most times at those memorial services and funerals, the casket of the deceased is open so people can have one last look at their lost loved one.

So how is this photo different?

Some may argue that a funeral or obituary is more private.

Perhaps. At least the funeral is, but obituaries can be read on newspaper Web sites from anywhere in the world.

The photo would be a memorial and homage to the fallen soldier who died valiantly for the United States.

I have family in the military, and I am proud of what they do for our country. Undoubtedly the Bernard family was proud of Lance Cpl. Bernard for going overseas to fight.

When one remembers that we have an all-volunteer military, every soldier is a hero because they are willing to do something so selfless as help protect our country, even though death is a constantly possibly during times of conflict.

It strikes me as odd, then, that the family would view the photo as anything less than honorable considering he knew he could die while fighting but chose to be a brave solider and serve in the military anyway.

The family should be proud of what he did and not ashamed, embarrassed or hurt for others to see what a grave sacrifice he made.

The image is definitely graphic, but it tells the truth. It finally puts a human touch and brings closer to home a war that has been very distant and removed.

Does this make Lance Cpl. Bernard a martyr?

No. He was a brave soldier doing his job.

The obvious question to ask someone such as myself that is in favor of running the photo would be if I would want to picture printed if it was my father, brother, uncle, cousin, family member or friend.

Even in such circumstances, I would say the photo should be published. It would not be an easy sight to digest, but I would rather know they died doing something courageous than just some fabricated and hollow truth that doesn’t have the same validity as an image of the event.

It would hurt me greatly to see someone I love in such pain, but I want to remember that person for who they are and what they did.

Being a soldier isn’t just a job. It is a way of life, and what better way to die than doing something you love?

Sure, being hit by an RPG isn’t the ideal way to go out, but at least he died being a soldier.

For example, I want to die being a journalist, even if that means having a heart attack at my desk because one of my reporters missed an important deadline.

Because of this, I believe the Bernard family should not be worried. The image will be hurtful, but at least he died in an honorable fashion that, thanks to the photograph and the depiction of his selfless sacrifice, can be shared with the world.

More than 20 newspapers ran the photo on their front pages, and countless more ran the photo on the inside of their papers. One paper, The Wheeling (W. Va.) Intelligencer, also published an editorial explaining its decision.

“Too often, we fear, some Americans see only the statistics, the casualty counts released by the Department of Defense,” the editorial said. “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.”

AP Photographer Jacobson agrees with such a sentiment.

“But to me, a name on a piece of paper barely touches personalizing casualties,” she wrote in her journal. “An image brings it home so much closer. An image personalizes that death and makes people see what it really means to have young men die in combat. It may be shocking to see, and while I’m not trying to force anything down anyone’s throat, I think it is necessary for people to see the good, the bad and the ugly in order to reflect upon ourselves as human beings.”

Exactly. It is the type of image the public needs to see but rarely gets the chance to.

Of course, it is also newsworthy as AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon said in the Lens Blog piece.

“What it does show – in a very unequivocal and direct fashion – the real consequences of ware, involving in this case a U.S. Marine,” he said. “And that becomes very personal and very direct in some way, because we have a name, we have a home town, we have a shared nationality and we have, to a certain extent, a shared culture and some common values. So I think it really becomes very immediate visual record of warfare that, in and of itself, is compelling, and that becomes more compelling because of its rarity . . . (There’s) a compelling reason to show the real effects of this war. Sanitizing does everyone a disservice in my view. Limiting casualty counts to number and names and nothing else; that’s a very incomplete picture of what’s going on.”

It is the job of our country’s soldiers to fight for our freedom and continued protection.

It is the job of our country’s journalists to report what goes on both at home and abroad and to record such occurrences for the sake of our history.

The family of Lance Cpl. Bernard is obviously suffering, and the publishing of this photo may not help that at first.

However, seeing the picture and having others from across the country and around the world see what the fallen soldier did for the U.S.A., it should help give them closure because the attention his story will receive will be proof that he did not die in vain.

Instead of just being another name on a list of soldiers who have been killed in action, Lance Cpl. Bernard is now more, and it is a distinct possibility that one image could help turn the tide in the direction our elected officials take our country in terms of military actions.

The most compelling, if not simple, reason to be OK with the photo being published requires stepping back into childhood and remembering “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

For all the controversy to be truly credible, though, we as a country would need to stop the hypocrisy and treat everyone involved in any conflict equally instead of feeling it is a personal attack when a photograph accurately depicts what is happening in a foreign country during a time when humans are slaughtering other humans.

Jacobson summed up everything and explained this notion of equality best in the last lines of her journal entry that the Lens Blog published.

“And with great respect and understanding to all the opposing arguments to publication, I feel that as journalists it is our social responsibility to record and publish such images,” she wrote. “We have no restrictions to shoot or publish casualties from opposition forces, or even civilian casualties. Are those people less human than American or other NATO soldiers?”

The answer to her question is a definitive no. If there are no restrictions for opposing forces, there should be no restrictions for U.S. forces. Period.

Jacobson did our country and her profession a great honor in shooting that photo, and AP furthered the honor by releasing it so newspapers around the world could place the image in front of the masses that need to see it.

Jacobson and the Associated Press should not be criticized or condemned. They should be lauded for their bravery in doing what had to be done.

Similarly, Lance Cpl. Bernard should be remembered and honored for his bravery and valor, and his family should be thanked for raising such a heroic man who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

So was it ethical to shoot and publish this photo?

Yes, because it told an important story that is vital to the public knowledge of our country.

Journalism doesn’t always make people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but in the interest of the public good, of which knowledge is always good, this story had to be told, no matter how much some people may not have wanted to hear or see it.

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About toddvogts 773 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at and follow me on Twitter at