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Journalists debate the limits of horror

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 12 April 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:828
  1. Naomi Marks, freelance journalist
  1. Brighton

    In terms of images of war, what can and can't be shown?

    As the battle for Baghdad began, a somewhat smaller skirmish was taking place in the London office of broadsheet newspaper the Guardian. Editor Alan Rusbridger, who had left work for the night, was called back in to help resolve it.

    The issue dividing the newsroom was whether or not it was acceptable to publish a Reuters picture that had come in over the wire. The picture was that of a bloodied, dead Iraqi baby, killed during a US air assault near Babylon. It was all the more poignant for the green dummy hanging round the dead infant's neck.

    It was a powerful image. It was also a disturbing one, leaving the reader with little doubt about the human cost of the war. But a central concern for Rusbridger in using the picture big on the front page was the reaction of children who might see it as they bought sweets in newsagents on their way to school.

    In the end, a balance between portraying the reality of war to Guardian readers and keeping unintentional distress to a minimum was struck: the picture was used small and what is known as “below the fold,” so that it remained hidden on the newsstands.

    Yet even if Rusbridger had “gone big” …

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