The Gadhafi death images: Too graphic?

The media made a grisly video of the Libyan leader's last moments widely available. Was it necessary to tell the story?

A boy holds up an "Execute Gadhafi" poster during a protest earlier this year
(Image credit: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

Major news outlets are defending their decision to show gruesome images of a bloodied Moammar Gadhafi being beaten, and then, apparently dead, dragged through the street on Thursday. CNN said its policy is to use graphic clips "sparingly," and in this case it wanted to "make the editorial point that Gadhafi appears dead." NBC News said it was trying to provide the "most accurate reports possible without crossing a line into offensive or unnecessarily graphic material." Was the disturbing video — shot by a rebel with his cellphone — really essential to telling the story?

The images were too graphic — they distorted the facts: "It's good to show the reality of war," says Steven Baxter at New Statesman, "but there's something unsettling about our delight in graphic pictures of the dead dictator." No matter how vile a man Gadhafi was, "there's something primeval almost, something rather unsettling, about the trophy-like nature of Gaddafi's corpse." The editors who aired the videos, and the viewers who watched, might be "delighting in the grisly episode a little too much."

"Col. Gadhafi, the trophy corpse"

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The images are facts and, therefore, part of the story: The journalist's job is "not to determine what people should and should not feel," says James Poniewozik at TIME. "It is to get at the truth of what actually happened in an event." And these video images "are at least part of the chain of evidence."

"Did you need to see Gadhafi's corpse?"

In the internet era, news outlets have no choice: Journalists once had to find a balance between "showing the truth and trying not to repulse" their audience, says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, as quoted by the Houston Chronicle. But in the internet age the images are going to get out, so not showing them could "make you irrelevant as a news organization." The trick now is to air explicit video without "exploiting or sensationalizing" it.

"Graphic Gadhafi images highlight changed news era"

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