Ethics, Media, and Public Policy: Honoring the Fallen Soldiers of the Iraq War


It is said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But what if the government is afraid of what a picture will say? How will this affect the access they will give to the media or which official photos they might release? What is the media’s role and how should they make decisions regarding which images to broadcast? And how will this effect public opinion of important events, especially support of military action? 

News channels in the Middle East, Britain, and the United States differ in the images of war they will present. Al-Jazeera, a Qatar based 24-hour satellite news channel airs coverage of war that includes graphic photos of injured or dead military personnel and civilians. The BBC has been less graphic in general, except when it aired a documentary about al-Jazeera. CNN is similar in its coverage to the BBC.

In covering the Iraq war, decisions are made regarding which images to show in order to accurately inform the public without compromising the dignity of the dead or injured soldiers and civilians and that of their family members. News agencies follow codes of ethics to make these decisions.

The Pentagon and the White House have instituted a policy of forbidding press from photographing the caskets draped with American flags that arrive to Dover Air Force Base. The dilemma is whether this is a policy developed out of respect for the soldiers and their families or a matter of censorship. Decisions are also made regarding footage depicting the deaths of civilians and soldiers that may or may not be identifiable to viewers.

A global ethical standard could be developed to address issues facing law enforcement, the environment, business, and international relations. Journalism ethics is a unique area in that lapses usually occur in the public forum and may be immediately analyzed and criticized by viewers not only locally or nationally, but internationally. “No other professional behavior is as open to scrutiny by those working in the profession, those who are used by the profession, and those who consume the final products.”[i]

It is crucial to understand how the news is broadcast in various countries and how each network develops and applies its code of ethics based and what influence cultural norms have in each decision. 

Role-related responsibilities as they relate to each situation need to be understood. “A good description of role-related responsibilities should be twenty-five words or less and should show how the role in question is different from other similar roles in society.”[ii]   The journalist’s role might be defined as accepting the responsibility to provide the public with accurate and objective information enabling individuals to evaluate the events and issues that impact their lives, without causing unjustified harm. Once ethical rules are established, “agents cannot ethically ignore the unintended, but predictable, consequences of their actions.”[iii]    The agent must navigate between its responsibility and adhering to its code of ethics. During a time of war, this can be particularly challenging.  Images of injured soldiers may be displayed to honor them or to graphically illustrate the cost of war.  The journalist must determine and honor the purpose of broadcasting the image and navigate the challenge of increasing public awareness of issues and consequences of policies without sacrificing ethical standards which ensure the dignity of those depicted is not compromised.


The InterAction Council (IAC) seeks to establish a global code of ethics that would guide all signatories and require them to be responsible for the effect their decisions would have on all people equally. Such a declaration must be grounded by values that can be agreed upon universally.  The IAC’s 1997 draft of A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities addresses the responsibility of the media in Article 14:

The freedom of the media to inform the public and to criticize institutions of society and governmental actions, which is essential for a just society, must be used with responsibility and discretion. Freedom of the media carries a special responsibility for accurate and truthful reporting. Sensational reporting that degrades the human person or dignity must at all times be avoided.

News outlets develop their own codes of ethics.  The BBC has a comprehensive guide available on their website.  The points relevant to their responsibilities during the coverage of war include:

Editorial principles & coverage of conflict[iv]

News ethics code[v]

Reporting suffering and distress when reporting war[vi]

Also relevant is, The British National Union of JournalistsUnited Kingdom Code of Conduct which gives special considerations to violations of privacy involving intrusions into personal grief and distress, and states it would be warranted only if justified by “overriding considerations of public interest.”[vii]

In 2005, following Lord Hutton’s criticism of its editorial system as “defective,” the BBC updated its codes on ethics, impartiality and taste and decency. A time delay lasting several seconds was instituted to allow editors to cut any scenes believed to be too shocking for viewers.[viii] 

The third statement in al-Jazeera’s Code of Ethics is: Treat our audiences with due respect and address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives and our viewers, and to individual privacy and public decorum.[ix]

CNN does not make available a code of ethics on their website, but an assumption might be made that they follow an interpretation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Statement of Principles, Article I:

The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time…. The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate, but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.[x]

And/or the Society of Professional JournalistsSigma Delta Chi Code of Ethics, which states:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. And outlines what journalists should do: “Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.” 

Additionally, it states journalists should “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”[xi]


An Irish newspaper characterizes the US 24-hour news channels as “more hawkish than the British ones,” and contrasts al-Jazeera as showing graphic images of burned bodies, hospital scenes and devastation.[xii] Al-Jazeera claims it does not follow any political agenda, but the airing of such photos has notably increased anti-American sentiment. While al-Jazeera may not be influenced by a particular government, its editorial decisions – unless carefully and strategically balanced with strict monitoring – might influence its viewers opinion of the war. The BBC commissioned a study that covered 1,500 individual reports. It showed that the corporation and most British broadcasters tended towards “pro-war assumptions.”

Mark Damazer, Deputy Director of BBC News, in a speech delivered to broadcasters, stated “…. For reasons that are laudable and honorable, we have got to a situation where our coverage has become sanitized…. British television viewers have not seen images of dead or injured British soldiers since the Falklands war.” He states this is a “disservice to democracy” and adds, “I’m not saying we should go fully down the al-Jazeera route and show everything, but we need to move from where we are.”[xiii]

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times in March 2003 states, “Journalists regularly edit footage and words to eliminate gratuitously violent images that don’t advance a story. That should not change. But it’s not the job of the press to protect people in a democracy from tough, unpleasant news. That news provides the basis by which a free people can make informed decisions about their governments and their policies.” [xiv]


It is unclear if the BBC’s code of ethics would also address the decisions made in the final editing of a documentary. In a documentary about al-Jazeera, contrasting the coverage of the Iraq war between media in the Arab world versus media in the West, the BBC aired footage of the bodies of dead British soldiers, a choice they had never made for hard news broadcasts.[xv]

Despite opposition led by victim’s families and including Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the BBC showed the identifiable bodies of Staff Sergeant Simon Cullingworth and Sapper Luke Allsopp which were discovered in a shallow grave. Footage had first been aired by al-Jazeera. The documentary film depicts the al-Jazeera’s “search for explicit battlefield images which the company could claim as ‘exclusive.” Close-up images of the dead British soldiers and of captured US soldiers were broadcast un-cut.[xvi] The journalist rationalized. “How can you make a documentary about a station that is known for its uncensored stance if you then censor your own content?” 

Is the code of ethics for a documentary produced and broadcast by a news network different than what would be aired during a hard news segment? It seems the style of coverage al-Jazeera employs could have been conveyed without compromising the dignity of the soldiers or the families, especially since this was a documentary on a current war and a recent event.  The choice seems to be in direct conflict with the BBC’s ethical guideline for reporting during war: “We will always need to consider carefully the editorial justification for portraying graphic material of human suffering and distress….It is always important to respect the privacy and dignity of the dead.”[xvii] 


When in April 2004, the U.S.’s ABC network devoted an entire episode of “Nightline” to reading the names and displaying the photographs of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the war in Iraq, they were accused of trying to influence opinion against the war. Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest owners of local television stations in the United States, pre-empted the program stating, “the plan to have Ted Koppel read aloud names of every member of armed forces killed in action in Iraq is motivated by antiwar agenda and threatens to undermine American efforts there.”[xviii]  The decision meant that viewers in eight major cities would not see the show.  Instead, Sinclair broadcast their own special called “a full debate about the Nightline special.” [xix] Janet Weaver, of the Poynter Institute, an educational foundation for journalists, said she was surprised the reading of the list would be considered a political act, and suggested the show would be received depending on one’s point of view.[xx] In the argument, it was possible to find conservatives accusing Ted Koppel of having an agenda, and to find those that pointed to Sinclair’s reputation for being supporters of President Bush. In September 2001, Sinclair ordered news personnel at its Baltimore station to read patriotic statements supporting the President. 

Pre-empting the show might be considered an act of censorship, infringing on the rights of the viewers who regularly tune-into “Nightline,” and those who would like the opportunity to reflect on the loss of the fallen soldiers as individuals. One might question how a debate can be framed regarding a show that no one has viewed. Such decisions made by the broadcaster’s leadership raise suspicion regarding the Group’s political agenda. The vice president of corporate relations for Sinclair accused Ted Koppel’s reading of the names to be biased journalism, and emphasized that the program would ignore other aspects of the war.[xxi]  If the show is presented as honoring the fallen soldiers by merely reading the names and displaying photos, then a more comprehensive review of stories produced by “Nightline” throughout the war coverage would have to take place before such a judgment could be made. 

Media coverage of ceremonies honoring American military personnel killed overseas has historically enabled the nation’s collective mourning. During the Vietnam War, images were regularly viewed on television and in print news sources. In 1980, President Carter was photographed at Arlington praying over flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of U.S. airman. In 1983 and 1985, President Reagan attended ceremonies at Andrews Air Force Base, pinning purple-heart pins onto the flags that were draped over each coffin. The media covered ceremonies in 1989 in Norfolk, Virginia and at Dover Air Force Base.[xxii]

The Pentagon ban on media coverage of returning war casualties was initiated in January 1991 by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, just before the start of the Gulf War against Iraq. On February 2, 1991, during Desert Storm, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued a statement: “Media coverage of the arrival of [] remains at the port of entry or at interim stops will not be permitted…” The explanation for the change in policy varied: “First, it said such rites at Dover would be closed to the press, purportedly to guard the privacy of surviving family members. Then it said families mustn’t feel obligated to come to Dover and thus inconvenience themselves.  Finally, it said families and media were no longer welcome at Dover because they might get in the way of the base’s cargo functions.”[xxiii]  However, in 1999, a likely more accurate explanation was revealed when the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Henry H. Shelton, said a decision to use military force was based in part on whether it would pass “the Dover test,” as the public witnessed the images of the war dead arriving home.”[xxiv]

Military photographers comprehensively document war preparations, action, the solemn moments, rebuilding, and the return of soldiers living or deceased. The photos are used in Defense Department publications and on their websites, and may also be selectively made available to news organizations, at the discretion of the Pentagon.  An Air Force Spokesperson has insisted the photos are taken for historical purposes.[xxv] It took a First Amendment activist who filed a request for the photos under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to win the release of the photos documenting the arrival of flag-draped coffins.  Initially, the Pentagon resisted, but following an appeal 361 photos were released.  Many of them however, showed evidence of censorship of information including the dates and locations. In other cases, what the Pentagon terms, “redaction” (vs censorship) included blacked out faces, uniform styles, and blocking the identity of the clergyman. Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, often uses FOIA to force release of government documents, emphasized he could not imagine members of the honor guards wanting their faces to be blocked out: “Honor guard is the most solemn duty for anybody in the military, not something for censors to hide.”[xxvi]

Most news agencies were unaware the photos ever existed, including the executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight.”  When the Seattle Times ran them, they received 90% positive feedback from their readers. Once the initial photos were released, however, the Pentagon renewed the ban on releasing the images to the media.[xxvii] A White House spokesman stated that President Bush after viewing the photos agreed with the Pentagon that releasing the photos was wrong. He emphasized that “privacy and sensitivity of the families of the fallen…has to be the utmost concern.”[xxviii]  Following the denial of additional requests for photos under FOIA, Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN Washington correspondent who teaches journalism and political science at the University of Delaware, filed a lawsuit supported by the National Security Archive and a Washington D.C. law firm, Jenner & Block.  The Pentagon agreed to release additional photos be a ruling in the lawsuit by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. Begleiter stated, “This is an important victory for the American people, for families of troops killed in the line of duty during wartime, and for the honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country… This significant decision by the Pentagon should make it difficult, if not impossible, for any U.S. government in the future to hide the human cost of war from the American people.”[xxix]

The Pentagon ultimately responded by discontinuing photography of honor ceremonies for deceased military personnel since the first FOIA request of 2004. That irresponsible choice, deprives all Americans of the opportunity to recognize the contributions and sacrifice made by the troops.  It also denies policymakers and historians of any record they might need to make informed judgments regarding public opinion of the war. [xxx]  The Pentagon may have ensured photos would not appear on the news, but they have shown disrespect for those that have sacrificed their lives for the very freedoms they violated.  As one journalist stated in an editorial, if inconvenience is indeed a factor in the development of the policy, then why not broadcast these images and print such photos so relatives can see the honor-guard receptions for the family members they lost in service to their country, when such a service may offer comfort and added meaning to a loved one’s death.[xxxi]  “The way everyone salutes with such emotion and intensity and respect. The families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that,” says Tami Silicio, a contract employee from the Seattle area who works the night shift at the cargo terminal.[xxxii]

In contrast, the military funeral of a member of Australia’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment was attended by the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, former SAS Commander, Governor General, Defense Force Chief, and hundreds of mourners including family, friends, and past and present SAS members.  An honor guard and a buglar were also present.  Defense officials briefed the media, and the opposition leader was quoted: “All Australians, whatever their political persuasions, are united in this expression of our grief today…”[xxxiii] 

Such display of respect, and media coverage of the ceremony shared nationally is not made possible for the citizens of the United States. One might ask if the honor bestowed on this one soldier is made impossible in the U.S. due to the numbers of fallen soldiers.  If this is true, is the recognition of the individual’s sacrifice less appreciated – especially if photos are not made available, so the public can acknowledge and appreciate the service of these troops. The denial affects the individual soldier, his family members, and the public.  Perhaps the “Nightline” program was the best solution to this dilemma since instead of merely stating the numbers of nameless military casualties, the individuals were honored by stating their name, age, rank, and broadcasting their photos nationally.


Framed within a Systematic Moral Analysis (SMA) to ensure that no ethical aspect is ignored, one might review the IAC’s Declaration and the Codes of Journalism Ethics adopted by the news agencies and measure public opinion of current coverage to assess the accuracy of reporting with the perceived impact on human dignity, the common principles in each code.  For example in a study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Forty-seven percent of the actual service members and 56% of the family members said photographs at Dover would increase respect.  Among the junior enlisted personnel (ranked E-4 and below) and their families, a category that has suffered 57 percent of the U.S. military deaths in Iraq, 60 percent said it would increase respect.”[xxxiv]

The process of Systematic Moral Analysis (SMA) requires that those “actions that can be shown to be morally questionable require further analysis.”[xxxv] Contemporary, moral philosopher, Bernard Gert, identifies ten moral rules that coincide with the harms that can be caused by self and others.  His tenth rule is: “Do your duty.”

The first step of ethical analysis is conceptualization: the identification of particular acts as morally questionable.  In conceptualization, the question is asked: “What are the agent’s role-related responsibilities? And establishes whether the moral agent was potentially blameworthy or not based on the answer to the question: “Was harm intended or could it have been predicted?” [xxxvi]

To determine if the moral rule “Do your duty” has been violated, role-related responsibilities must be identified.  The journalist’s role as stated by Assistant Director-General Abdul Waheed Khan, speaking for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said “the media, in both wartime and peace, could positively contribute to providing accurate and relevant information vital for people to make well-informed choices.”  He added, “War …was the time when accurate and professional reporting was most at a premium.”  Louise Frechette, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, stated “Where censorship [is] imposed, both democracy and development [are] the losers.  A free and independent press [is] the lifeblood of strong, functioning societies, and a lifeline to progress itself.”[xxxvii] 

The steps in the analysis of justification[xxxviii] consider whether harm caused by the violation of a moral rule is examined:  “Agents cannot ethically ignore the unintended, but predictable, consequences to their actions.” In the case of the BBC documentary about al-Jazeera which depicted identifiable dead British soldiers – the harm was forseen.  In fact, the families wrote letters asking that the footage be edited. Therefore, the decision does not appear to have justification.  The BBC could have considered alternate ways to edit the story – that would have conveyed the type of graphic footage al-Jazeera habitually aired, without sacrificing the dignity of the BBC’s own British soldiers and without violating the wishes of the family members who are also among the BBC’s viewers.  It could have also verbally stated that the images existed, to further describe the type of footage al-Jazeera airs, including the explanation that the images were edited to honor the dignity of the British soldiers.

Ignoring the sacrifice of the soldiers’ lives for the war does not engender support for the war or the government.  It may cause reason for suspicion.  If there is a real reason to go to war that the public can support and there is an effort for communication regarding the sacrifices that will be made, then honoring the soldiers may increase patriotism.  It is not for the media to judge what the impact on public opinion might be, but to report accurate information regarding events.


World Press Freedom Day is a day that was established by the UN General Assembly in 1993 stemming from a resolution to promote press freedom in the world. On the 2003 commemoration of the day, a panel on “Media and Armed Conflict” discussed professional practices and ethical norms that should guide media coverage of the war, and continuing responsibilities during the aftermath of conflict.  Louise Frechette, UN Deputy Secretary-General, outlined the “minefield of issues” journalists must navigate during wartime, including “big-picture context versus single-dramatic images,” and “the need to convey the impact of conflict…without displaying images of death and suffering, which were an affront to human dignity; and whether saturation coverage actually ended up diminishing our capacity to feel, to care, and to act.”[xxxix]

An al-Jazeera reporter suggested that “Westerners should realize that Arab media often show such scenes because they are more accustomed to dealing with violence.”[xl] This highlights the cultural differences that must be considered when developing a global code of ethics. Do people in countries that experience on-going war become hardened or insensitive?  Perhaps only the war-action is being covered without reporting on policy. 

Possibly the journalists in those countries could adopt practices that were informative and focused on the issues behind the war so that a resolution could be reached.   

How in a country that is only developing the field of journalism, and newly establishing a free press, will they be guided to make the right decisions?  If viewers are accustomed to seeing gruesome images – have they lost what it means to respect the individual – or is respect interpreted differently in different countries.  Or do they merely have different priorities due to the situation they are in – or could they learn to frame the story differently and in a way that would be more beneficial to their public in the understanding of how to navigate their future based on the blood-letting and destruction of the past and present. 

In the U.S. and Britain, focus is primarily on the policy and not the human cost of the war. Has the U.S. sanitized the news so much (via both choice and censorship) that they do not anticipate the destruction and toll of war and then are shocked by images to the extent that uncensored images might ---- sway public opinion.  In the U.S. the reporting of policy needs to be balanced with the impact that policy has on the military and their families.  The cost of war, including the accommodation of injured soldiers that will have special needs upon their return also needs to be examined to report a comprehensive story. 

The American flag sporting news reporters might display truer patriotism by questioning the policy that prevents the coverage of the hundreds of caskets returning from Iraq to the Dover Air Force Base.  Is the Pentagon’s policy one of respect for fallen soldiers and their families or is it a matter of the American people’s right to know?  For the Pentagon to censor photos is an infringement on the public’s freedom of information – hence the reason for the victory when the request was made for photos – and not allowing media access is an infringement on freedom of the press.  The images of flag-draped coffins do not reveal identity – names of those arriving to the Air Force Base are not revealed, or listed under photos.  The “Nightline” producers did the research to compile that list of names and photos.

Given the similarity in the code of ethics for journalism developed by each network or journalism association, and in fact, the IAC’s Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, it is a matter of how the stated code is interpreted and applied to journalistic decisions.  Many of the journalists working for al-Jazeera came from the BBC, so why did they change the code of ethics they follow?  Should the code be developed for the journalism profession, the individual journalists, or for the networks to follow?  An extensive discussion would be required among the signatories to determine the exact wording of each article – followed by an analysis of what each statement means, taking into consideration cultural differences in interpretation. Illustrative examples might be included.  Audits, refreshers, and access to an authority for difficult decisions, or those where the parameters are unclear, would be beneficial to ensure the continued adherence to the code as initially intended. Who would monitor adherence to the code?  What would the consequences be if that monitor determines the agreed upon code of ethics was not upheld?  These are the questions that must be addressed for the creation of, and adherence to a global ethical standard.

Memory Hole








[i] Elliott and Deni Elliott, Journalism Ethics, A Reference Handbook, ABC-CLIO, Inc. 1997, Santa Barbara CA, 1

[ii] Elliott, Deni, Ethics In The First Person, A guide to teaching and learning practical ethics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2007, 90-91.

[iii] Elliott 92

[vii] Cohen 149

[ix]  Press Release October 24, 2006 “Code of Ethics”

[x] Cohen 141-142.

[xi] Cohen 142.

[xii] Eddie Holt, The media’s war reporting tactics can be just as insidious as blatant regime propaganda, Irish Times, Dubin Ireland. March 29, 2003. 

[xiii] The Guardian: Embedded reporters ‘sanitised’ Iraq war, Matt Wells,  The Guardian, London, England, November 6, 2003.

[xiv] ‘The media is a weapon of war’: War in the Gulf Reporting of the conflict come under the spotlight  The Guardian, London, England, March 26, 2003.

[xv] Now No 10 attacks BBC over footage of dead British soldiers, Birmingham Post, England, May 29, 2003.

[xvi] Jeanette Oldham, , BBC backing journalist says not to censorship, The Scotsman , May 31, 2003, 2.

[xviii] Bill Carter, Some stations to block ‘Nightline’war  tribute, New York Times, April 30, 2004, A-13.

[xix] Carter

[xx] Carter

[xxi] Carter

[xxiii] Joe Geshwiler, A fitting memorial for gulf war dead, The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, March 18, 1991, A/10.

[xxiv] Monte Morin, Photos of coffins draw U.S. crackdown, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2004, A-1.

[xxv] Morin

[xxvii] Morin

[xxviii] Thom Shanker and Bill Carter, Photos of soldiers’ coffins spark a debate over access, New York Times, April 24, 2004, A-14.

[xxxi] Gershwiler

[xxxii] Hal Bernton, The somber task of honoring the fallen, The Seattle Times, April 27, 2004

[xxxiii] Nicolas Perpitch., AAP News (Australia) Wife and son pay emotional tribute to fallen soldier, November 2, 2007.

[xxxiv] Service Members, Families Say Pentagon Sent Too Few Troops To Iraq, Stressed National Guard and Reserves, Should Allow Photos of Coffins at Dover, Annenberg Data Show.  National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES04).  Annenberg Public Policy Center.  <>.

[xxxv] Elliott 90

[xxxvi] Elliott 89

[xxxviii] Elliott 92

[xxxix]  Importance of free, independent press, role of jounalists in Iraq War highlighted in World Press Freedom Day observance.

40 Carol Rosenberg, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Images of dead U.S. soldiers air in Iraq – but not in West, at Pentagon’s request, March 24, 2003, A-1.


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