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Storytelling In The News: #137

The story behind the images from Iraq prisons

May 2, 2004

Amid all the talk about the horrifying images from the prisons in Iraq, and the discussion of the power of images, it is often overlooked that what is driving the outrage is not so much the images, as the stories that we are reading into the images.

Thus understanding of the meaning of these images is wildly different depending on which of the following stories we read into the images:

1. The images are fake images, aimed at discrediting the US and UK military.(an interpretation being examined by the British authorities in connection with the pictures published by the Daily Mirror in London); or

2. The images were staged images to intimidate prisoners, but no actual abuses took place; or

3. The images represent abuses by a few isoloated individuals in Iraq; or

4. The images represent systemic abuses by the military chain of command; or

If story #1 were to become the accepted story, then the images would be seen as having little significance or lasting value.

If on the other hand story #4 were to become the accepted story, then the images might represent a stain on the reputations of the governments of the coalition that might last for many generations.

Since a US investigation completed in February has established that some abuses did take place, it is implausible that stories #1 or #2 will become the accepted story.

The US administration is making a strenuous public relations effort to get the world to accept that story #3 is the "correct" interpretation.

However much of the world has already leapt ahead to story #4 as the most likely story of what has occurred. This leap of imagination has been facilitated by the apparent lack of followup to the initial report of the US military investigation, with the report of the abuses reaching the highest level of the military or political command. It seems likely that this widespread belief in story #4 could only be removed by the most open, thorough and independent investigation of what has gone on.

Whatever the outcome, the political impact will be massive -- all depending on a story.

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