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National Enquirer ignites furor with Whitney Houston casket photo

If and when to depict the dead are questions that vex ethicists and newsrooms everywhere. Whitney Houston casket photos on the cover of the tabloid National Enquirer are taking that debate public.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / February 23, 2012

A poster of the late singer Whitney Houston hangs on a sign post near the New Hope Baptist Church before her funeral service in Newark, New Jersey, Saturday.

Mike Segar/Reuters

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Los Angeles

The National Enquirer’s decision to feature cover photos of the late Whitney Houston, in a casket, has touched off a furor, raising anew a debate over professional ethics, taste, morality, greed, and privacy.

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How and if media outlets should portray people who have died, or who are about to die, is a discussion that has ensued time and again in recent years, with the demise of international figures such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi; as people leapt to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center towers; and as the remains of US soldiers are returned to America at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. 

The questions include how to resolve potential conflicts among constitutional guarantees, such as freedom of the press and the public’s right to know versus an individual's right to privacy. They are hotly debated in newsrooms and around kitchen tables nationwide, and the answers vary widely within the hierarchy of publications, from strait-laced to tabloid.

Some media watchers seem resigned to media intrusion into individual and collective death.

"Turning dead bodies into cultural commodities violates the basic norm that death is private," says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas (Arlington) Sociology Department, in an e-mail. “But, since the Kennedy assassination in 1963, much death has been public. His brother Bobby died on television, as did many in Vietnam and everywhere one finds inhumanity and war.”

Others see no excuse for publishing photos like the ones on National Enquirer's cover. Fordham University Communication Professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media,” sees the issue much more cut and dried.

"Although some people find photos of the dead of interest, the media serve no worthwhile purpose in satisfying that interest," says Paul Levinson, a communication professor at Fordham University," in an e-mail. "The dead deserve respect, and their families are entitled to privacy. The only photos of the dead that should ever be made public are those that may be released by family."

Who snapped the controversial Whitney Houston photos remains a mystery to the public. The National Enquirer did not include a photographer's credit. Two photos are on the cover: one a close-up of Houston's head and torso, and the other from a distance with the casket flanked by two lamps and flowers. The headline reads “Whitney: The Last Photo," and it carries the subdeck “Inside Her Private Viewing." Three bullet points offer the details that the famous singer, who died suddenly on Feb. 11, was “buried in jewelry worth $500,000,” “wore her favorite purple dress,” and “had gold slippers on her feet.” Her funeral, which was private, was held Feb. 18.

Several media outlets have already weighed in with criticism.

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