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Beheading video triggers controversy, awakens media ethics debate

This hooded man, a British jihadi with a ­distinctive London accent, is preparing to behead Steven Sotloff. The man was filmed beheading Foley two weeks earlier.

The hooded man, a British jihad with a ­distinctive London accent, prepares to behead Steven Sotloff. The man was filmed beheading James Foley two weeks earlier.

Is a gruesome beheading image too graphic for media outlets to use?

Journalists must report the news, but at what point does the coverage of beheadings, like the ones of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, become too much? Media ethics help editors decide what to do in this situation.

People sometimes expect ethics to give them “the answer” to a dilemma, but there is not a unified “correct” answer on whether to post the beheadings of the journalists by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Individual editors make ethical decisions  after evaluating the facts.

When footage of Foley’s death took over Twitter on Aug. 19, editors at all media outlets had to decide whether to show the video or graphic still images from the video.

Reasons to block the video include:

  • Families of the deceased have access to the video.
  • The video is extremely graphic and doesn’t pass the “breakfast test.”
  • A text story can give all the same information without the graphic visuals.
  • The video might be considered “lurid curiosity,” which violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
  • The video might help ISIS recruit more terrorist members.

The New York Times opted not to show the video. Instead,  a short story ran on the front page of the print edition with only one photo. Joe Starita, a professor of media ethics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, agreed with the newspaper’s decision.

“There is often one single question that is frequently used by people in the media to determine what is the best thing to do,” Starita said. “Editors need to ask: ‘Whom does it help vs. whom does it hurt?’ Then, look at which one outweighs the other.”

Starita said almost every person will have a different answer to that question, but he believes news outlets should not be allowed to show the video.

“A beheading, unlike an assassination, which happens spontaneously as a part of the news, is coldblooded, calculated, premeditated murder for the sole purpose of exploiting the murder and manipulating people’s emotions,” he said. “It virtually helps nobody and hurts virtually everybody who isn’t a terrorist.”

CNN also said in a segment that it would not use the video for news reporting. There were newspapers, however, that chose to show graphic images from the beheading, including the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the Guardian.

Julian Clarke, the chief of News Corp Australia, agreed with the Guardian’s use of the severed-head photo and said, “This is the most horrendous thing that is going on in our world and hiding the brutal reality of this from anybody I don’t think is in anybody’s interest.” He made the remarks at a conference on the future of newspapers and was quoted in the Guardian and by the Huffington Post.

Reasons to reveal the video:

  • A citizen has a right to know the news.
  • A news outlet has a right to report breaking news.
  • The video provides a chance to raise awareness about the situation.
  • The video might make people want to act against future terrorism acts, which may not be possible by simply reading text.
  • Not posting the video, or graphic still images from the video, could result in distrust of the media outlet from people who don’t want to be excluded from all visual news.

To me, it’s all about what each editor wants to do regarding a specific media outlet. Once again, people sometimes expect ethics to give them “the answer” to a dilemma, but there is not a unified “correct” answer in any ethical decision making. Editors face ethical decisions a lot and ultimately it’s up to them to decide.

_By Madison Bell

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