© Associated Press.

On August 14, 2009, Associated Press (AP) photographer Julie Jacobson accompanied a US Marine squad on patrol in Afghanistan. Jacobson had experience as a war photographer, having twice covered US troops at war in Iraq. That evening, for the second time in her life, she watched a Marine struggle for his life. Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard had been hit by a rocket propelled grenade, and as two of his comrades rushed to stanch the blood pouring from his mangled legs, Jacobson lay in the dirt amid gunfire and took pictures. Bernard died in the hospital later that night.

As an embedded journalist—one who lived, traveled, and experienced combat with US troops—Jacobson had agreed to a set of rules articulated by the Department of Defense as a condition for allowing reporters to document the daily lives of combat troops and enjoy their protection. The embed system, introduced for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, was the latest iteration of a complex and ever-evolving relationship between journalists and the military.

Images of dead or wounded troops had long been a particularly fraught facet of this relationship, and the embed rules specifically banned publishing photos of identifiable dead or wounded service members pending family notification. After that, it was a judgment call on the part of individual news organizations whether or not to publish such photos. Many opted not to. By 2009, the US had been at war in Afghanistan for eight years and in Iraq for six, with thousands of American troops dead and wounded, but news organizations had published only a handful of images showing an individual American’s death or injury. Photographs of civilian casualties were much more common.

Jacobson sent a photograph of the mortally wounded Bernard to AP headquarters in New York a few days after taking it, having waited to be sure that his family had learned of his death. Over the next three weeks, top editors debated what to do with the photo. A cooperative news organization, the Associated Press distributed content to its members and customers—thousands of news organizations worldwide including most major American dailies—who could republish the material or not as they chose. The decision, which ultimately fell to Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, was not a question of publication, but of distribution—whether to send the photo of Bernard’s final moments to AP’s thousands of members and customers, thereby giving them the choice of whether to publish it.

Carroll and other editors felt that the photo had news value in itself as an exceedingly rare image of the costs of a war that had received dwindling media attention after the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Yet they were concerned about the impact the photo might have on Bernard’s family and arranged to have a reporter attend Bernard’s funeral to learn more about him and to warn his parents that AP had a photo of their son suffering from the wound that killed him. Bernard’s father urged AP not to distribute the photo. As did the Department of Defense (DoD). On September 3, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called AP CEO Tom Curley to exhort him to hold the photo back.

Curley and Carroll discussed the call. Both still felt that the photo told an important story. In the past, it had not been unusual for the Defense Department to object to stories or photos that the AP planned to transmit, but it was highly unusual for them to ask that the work be withdrawn after distribution. Was that alone enough to make the AP reconsider? What precedent might it set if AP acceded to DoD’s request?