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Web debate on photos of Hussein's sons

Photos of Saddam Hussein's dead sons quickly circulated across the Web Thursday after the U.S. government released them, prompting debate about how and whether to display them.

3 min read
Photos of Saddam Hussein's dead sons quickly circulated across the Web on Thursday after the U.S. government released them, prompting debate at Web news sites about how and whether to display them.

The graphic photos of the bloodied, bruised bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein appeared on sites ranging from The New York Times to Google News, from MSNBC to Al Jazeera. The government said it released the photos in order to prove to skeptical Iraqis that the pair had been killed.

Web sites presented the photos in a variety of ways. Some loaded them directly, while others let viewers choose whether they wanted to see the explicit images.

Google, which has an automated news system, was one of the few major U.S. sites to display the photos on the front page of its news site. On Thursday morning, the site displayed small pictures from a Fox News story on the right-hand side of its page. The photos were later replaced with a less graphic image.

Most sites, if they showed them at all, posted the pictures within a story that was linked to from the front page, not on the front page itself. Google representatives did not immediately return phone calls requesting comment on the display.

Unlike newspapers, which could potentially surprise readers at breakfast with front-page or inside photos of the gory images, many Web sites allowed people to choose how, or whether, they wanted to see them.

MSNBC's treatment of the photos on its Web site drew high praise from some media experts. MSNBC displayed a black box at the top of its story about the pictures with an editor's note that the pictures were graphic. It instructed users to click on a button below the box if they wanted to see a slideshow of the pictures.

Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank, called MSNBC's treatment "masterful" and said the Web's ability to let people pick and choose provided a real service. "I like the idea of giving people the information they need to make a good decision, of allowing viewers to choose how much they want to know," Tompkins said. "That feels like democracy to me."

Sites including The New York Times and CNN displayed the photos somewhere in the piece about the pictures. CNN posted a picture of Iraqis watching a television set that displayed a small image of Uday Hussein, whose wounds were not discernable in the shot. CNN also gave people paid access to video of the images and free access to a slide show that compared photos of the dead brothers with pictures of them when they were alive. In both cases, CNN warned that the images were graphic.

Fox News displayed small photos of the brothers, both dead and alive.

Arabic news site Al Jazeera ran large versions of the gory pictures across its front page.

Many local news sites chose not to display the photos at all on their sites, mainly because such national stories are primarily covered by the networks, and the local sites could easily point people to stories on CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox. What's more, in California at least, news about the recall of Gov. Gray Davis was the major news story of the day, meaning the photos would get little major play if they were run.

The debate over whether to post graphic images on the Web has raged for years, especially because the Internet makes it easy for people to find disturbing images on underground Internet sites that would never make it into mainstream newspapers, television broadcasts or Web sites.

For example, most mainstream Web sites decided against airing the video of Daniel Pearl's death or images of U.S. soldiers captured during the recent war with Iraq, although surfers could easily find them on other sites.

Tompkins said the debate this time around was more about how to show the pictures than whether to show them. There was no real journalistic purpose to showing images of Pearl or the soldiers, Tompkins said. The photos of Hussein's sons, on the other hand, have the potential to lay to rest questions about whether they're dead and change the course of the conflict.

"Why is this news? The reason it's news is because these are two wanted, very connected, very feared leaders in Iraq," Tompkins said.