10/21/2011 06:24 EDT | Updated 12/21/2011 05:12 EST

Dead Gaddafi Images Divide Canada's Media Landscape


TORONTO - The images are violent, viseral and familiar. Pictures of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi's final moments and bloody corpse have been emblazoned across newspaper front pages, websites and television screens since his death at the hands of his countrymen early Thursday.

The gory images of a dictator in his death throes presented Canada's media outlets with a conundrum made all the more challenging by the diverse audiences they had to serve.

Newspapers and TV networks alike grappled with questions of sensitivity and ethics as they tried to tell an inherently gruesome tale of international significance without alienating their audiences.

The struggle prompted plenty of discussion in the newsroom at CTV, said Mark Sikstrom, executive producer at the network's online news division.

Editorial staff debated at length the merits of the many cellphone images transmitted from Libya, trying to determine which ones were germane to the story of a dictator's downfall.

"Was he really dead was a central question," Sikstrom said in a telephone interview. "The only way you can actually verify that without going to secondary sources is to show the audience that, indeed, it's Gaddafi."

CTV's newscasts and website all featured video footage that gave viewers a glimpse of Gaddafi with a visible bullet hole in his forehead, as well as shots of his body lying in a morgue-like setting.

The more detailed, vivid pictures were reserved for the website and hidden behind a link, while newscasts featured prominent verbal warnings that graphic content was about to be aired, Sikstrom said. The network also tried to mitigate the impact of the disturbing images by showing them for brief periods of time, he added.

Such considerations came into play at both of Canada's other news networks, though with strikingly different results.

Ron Waksman, national director of editorial and online news at Global News, said staff weeded out all images deemed to be gratuitous. Closeups of Gaddafi's body, or brightly lit images of his final moments, were all ruled inappropriate and kept off the network's newscasts and website, he said. The usual verbal warning about graphic content was also supplemented with a visual cue, giving the audience ample time to avoid the images if necessary, he added.

Despite the fact that Gaddafi's death was unlikely to strike a personal chord with most viewers, Waksman said Global opted to adopt the mantra "less is more."

"Moammar Gaddafi was known as a world figure. he was known for human rights abuses and brutality within his own country," he said. "These are all factors that we considered, but at the end of the day the most important criteria is, 'how much do we really need to include to tell the story? Is there an alternative to showing those pictures? Because if there is, you don't want to go over the top with it.'"

CBC took the most cautious stance, shunning almost all visuals depicting Gaddafi's dead body. Director of current affairs David Studer said Gaddafi's corpse was briefly visible in footage illustrating the public outpouring of joy taking place in Libya, but added every effort was made to keep deathbed footage off the air.

Studer criticized the rush to publish the violent images, saying many media outlets outside of Canada were treating one of Libya's historical turning points as they would handle a federal election.

"Some people do treat this as a contest. . . . They want to be first with the images and first with the declaration," he said. "I don't think that's necessary. . . . Not much turns on it. It was just how quickly the fighting in Libya was going to be over."

Newspaper coverages similarly spanned the spectrum, with the Toronto Star emulating the CBC's approach in refusing to show a dead body. Bob Hepburn branded most available images excessive and said the paper felt the story could be told more effectively through other means.

Media outlets were able to stake out one piece of common ground _ all dismissed the suggestion that the proliferation of alternative news sources, including Youtube, Twitter and independent blogs, had any impact on their decision-making processes.

Studer said the discussions surrounding the Gaddafi photos would have sounded the same 20 years ago as they did on Thursday.

"I think that would have been the decision then," he said. "I think it's good that we haven't changed that point of view in light of digital and social media."

Despite the controversial nature of the images, readers have been remarkably understanding of all approaches on display. Even the boldest strategy seems to have met with wide acceptance, CTV's Sikstrom said.

"On all our online comments and calls and letters, I don't think we've received any objections to the way we handled the images," he said. "It could be just because everybody was glad to see Gaddafi die."