To publish or not: James Foley video spotlights media’s tough call

Remnick, Baquet and other editors discuss their decisions about when to publish disturbing images

The obvious implication of The New York Times’ famous motto that its pages contain “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is that not all news is fit to print. Of course, a lot has changed since that slogan debuted in 1896. For one thing, the internet has replaced print as the news’ primary platform. Even so, the basic responsibility the motto suggests remains: It is incumbent upon the media to distinguish the information that it is valuable for the public to read and see from the information that is better kept private.

This perennial dilemma is at the center of the controversy over whether to publish the video, or images from the video, released on Tuesday, of journalist James Foley being beheaded by an ISIS militant.

Of course, the other thing that has changed is that the traditional media are no longer the sole arbiter of what should and should not be seen. The video was originally posted on YouTube, which soon removed it, and disseminated on Twitter, which announced on Tuesday that it was suspending accounts “related to this graphic imagery.” Nonetheless, the decisions of these social-media platforms reflected the judgments of many traditional news organizations, which refused to publish not only the video itself, but any images from it. Those publications that have featured images from the video have been roundly criticized.

On Wednesday, Vox’s Max Fisher tweeted that he had blocked all Reuters Twitter accounts in protest of its decision to share shots from the video, including one of Foley on his knees before his knife-wielding executioner. Fisher, who knew Foley personally, was distraught by the possibility that the public would remember Foley only in his humiliating final moments. “I would rather derive meaning from Jim’s life,” Fisher wrote. He describes his colleague as a “confident, ever unassuming” man, dedicated to “truth and understanding.”

On the other hand, Reuters seems to have deemed the images indispensable to the story—to, in effect, truth and understanding. In addition to the images tweeted by Reuters, the wire’s website published an edited version of the video with the beheading and its aftermath removed. When I asked a Reuters spokeswoman to explain the decision, I was referred to the company policy on “graphic images and obscenities,” which states that the determining factor in such judgments is “whether the material is necessary to an understanding of the reality portrayed or described.”

Meanwhile, Business Insider ran a story disapproving of Twitter’s failure to suspend the New York Post and New York Daily News accounts following their Wednesday front pages. Both ran full-page images of Foley just before his execution, under the headline: “Savages.” Business Insider blurred out the tabloid images and its own story on the video was accompanied by photographs of Foley smiling or at work.

Joseph Weisenthal, Business Insider’s executive editor, said that his decision was not the result of a strict company policy. “We take it case-by-case,” he said. “We decided not to publish the James Foley video because of the extreme brutality and the desire not to rebroadcast terrorist propaganda.”

Business Insider, however, was among the numerous outlets, including The New York Times, that shared embedded links to videos such as that of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a police chokehold in July, and radical Islamist group Boko Haram advertising its capture of more than 200 Nigerian girls in May. While neither video contains anything as gruesome as a beheading, the media’s general willingness to participate in their dissemination suggests an uncomfortable truth about these editorial decisions: Nobody knows exactly where the line separating newsworthy from dangerous or overly disturbing content lies.

That is not to say that there is no consensus at all. As Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said, “There is no journalistic value to my mind of showing what a beheading looks like.” And even the Daily News censored the picture it published of Foley’s severed head resting upon his body.

But beyond that, choices about whether to publish sensitive or shocking information or pictures are exceptionally difficult, especially because doing so can be enormously informative. For instance, after a debate in the Times newsroom, Baquet elected to publish a comparatively mild still from the Foley video that he felt sufficiently evoked the horror of the ordeal. “I don’t buy the argument that you don’t publish anything,” he said. “Readers are smart and thoughtful. And the image was a vital part of the story.”

By the same token, Vox, which did not publish any images from the Foley video, ran a story in July entitled “6 times videos have helped hold police accountable.” The list included the tape of the 1991 beating of Rodney King and a video from 2008 in which police dump a quadriplegic man out of a wheelchair, as well as the choking of Eric Garner.

Here again, none of this elicits the level of visceral disgust that the Foley video delivers, and certainly there is a case to be made that exposing police brutality is newsworthy in a way that exposing an execution of an innocent man by a terrorist organization is not. But there is also a case to be made that, if the media’s job is to reflect the world as it is, then sanitizing the ugliest parts does a disservice to truth and understanding.

Among the more infamous graphic images published in the 21st century were the photographs of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that appeared in The New Yorker in 2004. Those haunting pictures included a shot of an Iraqi prisoner, cornered, naked, and recoiling from American soldiers who were using dogs to torment him. Another photograph showed two Americans grinning behind a pile of naked, hooded captives.

David Remnick, who has been editor of the magazine since 1998, is convinced he made the right call about the images from Abu Ghraib. “We ran them, along with Seymour Hersh’s reporting, for three weeks running, and, if I have any regrets about it, it’s that we didn’t make the space to run more of them,” he says.

History appears to have vindicated his decision. The Abu Ghraib photographs and the stories they illustrated became symbols of the corruption of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and contributed to the ongoing debate about America’s use of torture.

The Foley video, by contrast, was conceived and filmed to serve the interests of a brutal terrorist organization, to humiliate a person who was, by all accounts, a decent man and an honest journalist, and to intimidate the reporters, civilians, and Western officials at whom it was targeted. For many editors, it seems, that distinction has proved too stark to ignore.

Christopher Massie is a CJR contributing editor. Tags: , , , ,