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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.

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The Washington Post said “a line had been crossed.” The website Jezebel called it morbid, and a Los Angeles Times headline read, “National Enquirer Whitney Houston casket photo: Finally too far?”

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Beyond the serious issues of taste and morality, the case presents a “teachable moment” for Brett Wilmot, associate director of The Ethics Program at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. A concern for ethics teachers that can be of help to the general public, he says, "is to be aware of how the media is trying to pique our curiosity in ways we might not wish to admit as part of our humanity. It’s a time for each of us to ask what it is inside us that wants to take a peek at photos like this, to rubberneck when passing a roadside crash. It’s a conversation worth having.”

To Russell Frank, who teaches journalism ethics at Pennsylvania State University, the episode is a gold mine for instruction among editors.

“What really leaps out to me is looking at the number of so-called serious publications who are questioning the National Enquirer’s decision, while at the same time capitalizing themselves on the very luridness of the details that they are openly deploring,” he says. “What these folks are doing is not letting this stuff in through the front door, but letting it in the back door just the same.”

If they aren’t providing a link to the picture, they are providing a vivid description of it, he says.

That said, Mr. Frank says a key question editors must ask themselves when deciding whether to publish a photo of an individual's remains is this: Does it advance the reader’s knowledge of anything important about the deceased? An editor might be motivated to show pictures of dead bodies from Syria or Haiti so that readers understand the devastation, and will be moved to send aid or to work to get their governments to do so.

“Pleasantness of the photo is not the issue,” he says. “The photo may make you sick or uncomfortable, but there might be some compelling reason to run it."

The question to ask is “whether the story or picture gives us some insight into the person that can contribute to the audience (which is all of us) learning something about the human condition," says Richard Goedkoop, professor of communication at LaSalle University, in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, in our celebrity/tabloid culture … it is whether this story will attract attention that will improve circulation and sales."  

The public itself, he adds, bears responsibility for the National Enquirer episode.

“Those who bought or read the National Enquirer this week are also a major part of the problem, because without them, there would not be an incentive for the photo of Whitney Houston in the funeral parlor to be taken or purchased.”

IN PICTURES: Whitney Houston, in memoriam 

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