That there is no Golden Rule guiding editors who must decide whether to publish graphic images has never been more obvious than in the past few weeks. On August 19, the ISIS video showing James Foley’s murder ignited a debate between journalists who believed that publishing images of the executioner’s knife at Foley’s neck was essential to readers’ understanding of the story and those who thought it was not. (Maybe in part because the debate had already played out, the video of another journalist, Steven Sotloff, being decapitated by ISIS two weeks later sparked far less argument.)
Yet the controversy over how much violence is too much to broadcast, embed, or link to resurfaced Monday following TMZ’s release of a video of (now former) Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator.
While most mainstream outlets refused to publish shots of the more jarring moments of Foley’s execution, with some even withholding video clips from the ceremony that preceded it, most editors made the opposite decision on the tape of Rice punching his now-wife. For example, neither The New York Times nor The New Yorker published the Foley video on their websites, but both publications embedded the Rice video in stories on the subject.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding the Rice video are very different from those around the Foley video. There is, first of all, a fundamental difference between an execution and a punch, no matter how sickening that is. Furthermore, the video of Foley’s death likely did not change anyone’s opinion of his murderers. Most people already believed that ISIS was abhorrent and, given that the group filmed Foley’s killing to promote its own interests, it probably didn’t dissuade any of its sympathizers.
But the visual evidence of Ray Rice’s brutality spurred the Ravens to cut him and the NFL to ban him indefinitely. This is what many commentators demanded months ago, after the initial revelation that Rice had abused his partner (which itself came with a TMZ video of him dragging the unconscious woman out of the elevator). This series of events prompted Baltimore Sun television and media critic David Zurawik to write, “TMZ did the job the mainstream sports media failed to do in showing us the ugliness of this incident.”
For some, however, the factor that determines whether linking to or embedding the video is appropriate is the dissent of Janay Rice, who made a statement on Instagram Tuesday deploring the media’s dissemination of the video and calling Ray Rice “the man I love.” The absence of the victim’s support for the prevailing media narrative led The Nation’s Dave Zirin to write that the problems in her relationship “become our damn business only if Janay Rice wants them to become our damn business.” Zirin called for “any site that actually cares about violence against women more than page clicks should take the damn thing down.”
This is a compelling argument, especially given that some outlets partly justified their refusal to publish the Foley video on the grounds that they felt it would be gratuitously insulting to the journalist’s memory. In the case of Janay Rice, though, a still-living participant in the story has explicitly claimed that “to make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is horrible thing.”
But that cannot be the end of the discussion. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson noted that it is a sign of the pervasiveness of “the willful rationalizations that sustain domestic violence” that it took this video to overcome lingering suspicions, like those of ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, that Janay Rice provoked her fiancé to beat her.
Only a shift in social attitudes can permanently eliminate such beliefs. And while no journalist is in a position to deny Janay Rice’s assertion that she loves the man who abused her, there surely are plenty of women in the world for whom that is not true.
As Davidson wrote, the video shows “what it looks like when a man beats up a woman.” The phenomenon of domestic violence transcends Janay and Ray Rice. When professional athletes abuse their partners, the media is right to treat its coverage accordingly.