Ruth Marcus: Drawing the line between informative and offensive images
“Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. That’s not how life should be.”
So tweeted Kelly Foley, a cousin of beheaded journalist James Foley, as the video of the brutal execution began to go viral – as the Islamic State intended.
Beheaded journalist. How horrible to write a sentence featuring that shorthand, so simultaneously matter-of-fact and gruesome. Yet here we are, once again. Remember Daniel Pearl. And with that, the question, unfortunately likely to recur, of what responsibility news organizations, social media companies and everyday people bear in handling and spreading such painfully incendiary images.
Anyone who believes there are slam-dunk answers to these questions has not been thinking hard enough about the multiple and competing issues of ethics and policy embedded in the dispute.
I tend to come out on the Kelly Foley side of the equation: On balance, the combination of the violent intrusiveness of these images and their intended function as a propaganda tool for terrorists argues – and this is an odd, unexpected position for a journalist to adopt – against their dissemination. The position of victims’ families – Pearl’s father, for instance, argued that “we should remove all terrorist-produced murder scenes from our websites and agree to suppress such scenes in the future” – cannot be dispositive, but it should be given serious weight.
Still, I can see the other side. To share the images of Foley’s murder may be to give the terrorists what they want, but it is also to broadcast, and to underscore, their savagery, in a way that, unfortunately, mere words cannot convey.
As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote in a thoughtful analysis, “We will never prevail over an enemy as barbaric and totalitarian as the Islamic State if we avert our gaze from what it does to those it vanquishes.”
I have not seen the beheading video; I do not want to see it and have not searched it out. Common decency – actually, for me, more than common decency; rather, the knowledge that it would be too upsetting to view – trumps journalistic curiosity. I do not want those images in my head, and in my dreams.
As I write, I have been staring at the photograph of James Foley on the front pages of the New York Daily News and New York Post on the day after the video’s release. Foley, in an orange robe, is kneeling, his eyes closed, his arms behind his back. Behind him stands a man, hooded in black.
One hand holds Foley’s chin. The other has a knife at his throat. “SAVAGES,” blare the headlines in both papers, but this seems redundant. If I were the top editor, the photograph would not appear in my newspaper. It is too shocking; too much of a voyeuristic intrusion in the last moments of a human life.
So, then, should we think about the role of social media differently than we think about that of traditional news organizations? One approach is to view these entities as essentially public utilities through which information and images flow.
In this view, they should not be arbiters of what is decent enough for public consumption. In the age of the Internet, we are all journalists, and the role of social media is to passively facilitate the transmission of our work-product.
I don’t think that’s correct and neither, apparently, do YouTube and Twitter. YouTube moved quickly to take down the beheading video, citing “clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts,” as well as to “terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further its interests.” Likewise, tweeted Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.”
No one wants Net super-nannies deciding what content is permissible, but – as with child pornography – beheadings are extreme cases. No doubt, as well, there is a tension between technology companies’ understandable bristling over the European Union’s declared “right to be forgotten” and their assertion of responsibility to police violent content.
Yet the companies acted properly in handling the Foley images. So, too, did the tweeters who embraced the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout.
Between informative and offensive lies the thinnest of lines. Sadly, Foley’s death likely will not be the last time it will have to be drawn.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.