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Did You Need to See Gaddafi’s Corpse?

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When Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in May, people criticized the government’s decision not to release the reportedly grisly photos of his corpse. Rumors were swirling that bin Laden was not actually dead, and the lack of visual evidence—as opposed to the leaked video that emerged after Saddam Hussein’s hanging—encouraged them. We live in the “pix or it didn’t happen” era, went the argument; used to seeing visual evidence of nearly everything, nearly immediately, people take a lack of visual confirmation as reason to doubt.

And yet it’s worth pointing out that, at least as the news of Muammar Gaddafi‘s death in Libya emerged this morning, the pix in and of themselves did not immediately prove that it happened. If you were half following the news this morning, the pictures and video of a bloodied, seemingly lifeless body were almost unavoidable. They streamed over Twitter, were insta-posted to the web and soon wallpapered cable news; “The images we’re about to show are graphic,” anchors warned, often after they already started rolling.

(POLL: Should news organizations have shown photos of Gaddafi’s corpse? Vote now on Facebook.)

But even as the gruesome images ran–and reran, and reran–news outlets qualified their coverage of them: “Video appears to show fmr. Libyan leader’s body,” CNN reported. It took the separate, nonvisual confirmations of different sources, including the new Libyan government, to get news organizations to declare Gaddafi actually, rather than reportedly, dead.

[Update: Interestingly, as of just now at 2 p.m. ET, CNN is running a "Gadhafi Is Dead" chyron, yet Wolf Blitzer just wondered how far President Obama would go in his statement in "confirming" the leader's death—so even after all we've seen this morning, there's still qualifying going on.]

So what purpose did they serve? I could make the argument that the photos offer a powerful sense of closure, depicting the comeuppance of a bloody tyrant who killed innocents. I could as strongly make the argument that showing his maimed husk dragged through the streets makes him pathetic and risks generating sympathy that he doesn’t deserve. I could argue that the evidence of his killing bolsters the Arab Spring or invites backlash against it.

All of these arguments would be beside the point. The job of journalism–at least of breaking-news reporting like this–is not to determine what people should and should not feel and then work backward to produce the images that will engineer the ideal emotional response in the name of right thinking. It’s not to try to encourage the right public reaction or head off a dangerous one (whereas that might be the entirely appropriate worry of a government). It is to get at the truth of what actually happened in an event.

In this conspiracy-minded age, even photos and videos don’t do that conclusively in themselves. What if someone dressed up a different corpse? What if the picture shows him wounded, not dead? What if it’s Photoshopped? What if, what if? But the pictures are at least part of the chain of evidence, and even if they could be used more sparingly, in a story like this, the facts of death, and people’s belief in them, are key to future events. (Of course, honestly, news organizations are just as likely to show the photos just because they can. As I wrote this post, I got a press releases from two news outlets claiming to have been the first to transmit images of the dead dictator.)

A photo of a corpse is something more than just a data point. As a human being, I’d like to think that we’re disturbed by pictures of the dead–even evil tyrants–for good reason, because we recognize something sacred about life. (Which is a separate consideration from whether someone deserves to die.) Sometimes the news should, sparingly and with consideration, show dead bodies–because news is also about conveying the enormity of events, the fact that wars and disasters are not abstract and bloodless.

All of which is to say there is no single perfect answer; I know the power and value of these images, and I’d rather not be ambushed by them. So I’m writing this post as much to ask you: did you need the pix to tell you that it happened?

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