If you watch network news, you've had the experience of watching as Brian, Katie, or Diane says, "Some dramatic video tonight from somewhere or other. Just watch as this cow is swept away by floodwaters, caroms off a stop sign, does a double-twisting backflip, then lands on all four hooves on the roof of an Arby's. Local officials report the cow is a bit shaken, but doing OK. Just amazing." Of course, it isn't "news" by any journalistic standard, but if they've got good video, they're going to use it. If you watch local news, somewhere around 20 percent of each night's broadcast is devoted to that kind of thing (and who doesn't love waterskiing squirrels, anyway?).
But this weekend, the networks were getting a little skittish about whether to use some dramatic video they thought they were going to get. I speak, of course, about the aborted Quran-burning event down in Florida. The Associated Press has announced that it won't be putting out any pictures of the actual burning:
Mr. Kent’s memo noted that the Koran burning may not take place at all. Should it take place, “The A.P. will not distribute images or audio that specifically show Qurans being burned, and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning,” he wrote. “With the exception of these specific images and descriptions, we expect to cover the Gainesville event, in all media, placing the actions of this group of about 50 people in a clear and balanced context.”
On one hand, you could argue that the potential for people getting mad when they see the pictures shouldn't weigh into a journalistic decision about whether to show them. A picture of a burning book doesn't fall into our standard categories of what is unviewable on television. On the other hand, news organizations make these kinds of decisions all the time, deciding not to show pictures because they think people will get upset.
But it's worth noting that we assume when making these kinds of judgments that images have the power to inflame, offend, and persuade in a way that words do not. And sometimes they do. But it's an assumption we should always examine. Would the damage have been minimized if the networks gave the event plenty of coverage, but didn't show the flames? Maybe. But probably not.
-- Paul Waldman