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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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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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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.

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.

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