As the point man on a patrol in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Lance Cpl. Joshua “Bernie” Bernard was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush. The RPG blew off one of his legs and severely damaged the other. Bernard, a 21-year-old from New Portland, Maine, was evacuated to a Marine compound but later died from his wounds.
It was a scene not uncommon to combat in Afghanistan. What was different was that Bernard’s unit was accompanied by an Associated Press photographer who captured an image (warning: link leads to graphic image) of Bernard just seconds after he was mortally wounded, and that the AP then decided to publish the image against the wishes of the Marine’s family. The publication of such images has been relatively rare, partly because journalists are not often on hand to see such events and also because military guidelines bar showing pictures of dead soldiers before the family is notified.
The AP reported that Bernard’s father had asked in an interview and follow-up phone call that the image not be published, saying it was disrespectful to his son’s memory. But after a “period of reflection,” the AP decided to “make public an image that conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized the AP for publishing the photo. In a letter to the news organization’s president and chief executive, he wrote: “I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family. Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to yet more anguish is beyond me…The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right — but judgment and common decency.”
A few newspapers published the image and many others did not. The Missourian published the photo and accompanying story on Sept. 4 on its Web site and in print on page 3A.
Should the Missourian have published the photo of the dying Marine?