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SPJ Ethics Committee issues statement on publication of Pearl photos


Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, 651-642-4437 or
Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee Co-Chairman, 303/755-0395 or

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists issued the following statement today regarding the Boston Phoenix’s printing of graphic photographs of journalist Daniel Pearl’s death.

Statement by the SPJ Ethics Committee

The Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists believes the Boston Phoenix crossed an ethical line when it printed a photograph of Daniel Pearl’s severed head.

The committee deplores the newspaper’s decision to place the grisly photo in a way in which readers had no choice but to view it. While the paper had the legal right to do what it did, the question is not one of legality, but of ethics.

Granted, there is a certain awful truth that the photo represents.  The hatred his murderers have for Jews and Americans is crystallized in the image, but that truth does not outweigh the harmful shock to readers and to Pearl’s family. It seems difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than that the newspaper decided to not follow the advice of the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” That is part of the code’s tenet calling on journalists to “Minimize harm,” which says “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

The images were taken from a propaganda video made by Pearl’s captors. The newspaper originally placed a link to the video on its Web site, which made viewing of the images optional for readers, who were warned that the material was “extremely graphic.” While publishing the link may also be objectionable to many people, the Ethics Committee addressed this issue only after the paper printed two black-and-white images on the paper’s editorial page, one showing Pearl’s severed head. The pictures accompanied an editorial that said the video should galvanize opposition to “the perpetrators and supporters of those who committed this unspeakable murder.” 

The paper’s publisher, Stephen Mindich, told the Ethics Committee that the pictures where printed after much deliberation. He said it would have been unethical not to bring the information to the attention of the American public, which has not felt the full weight of the event or fully understood that Pearl was killed because he was Jewish. As for not giving readers the option of viewing the images, he cited widespread publication of pictures showing victims of the Holocaust, the dead American soldier being dragged down a Somalian street and the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination.

Unlike the images Mindich cites, the image of Daniel Pearl’s severed head came not as the result of journalism, but from a video that was scripted as propaganda -- and that was given currency by the newspaper’s publication of a link to the video.

In the current case and those Mindich cites, journalists had to weigh the balance between reporting the truth and minimizing harm. That balance is often difficult to ascertain. In this case, the photo was used as a design element, was not specifically referenced in the editorial, and added nothing but shock value to the awful truth that Pearl was decapitated.

Given these circumstances, the Ethics Committee believes that the shocking, extremely graphic photo should not have been placed before readers without warning. Ethical journalists respect the sensibilities of their readers, viewers and listeners. In this case, seeing the actual image adds little if anything to our already horrific imagination of the event.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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