to Publish or not to publish? that is the question
On Tuesday, the latest barbaric execution of a Jordan pilot burnt alive in a cage by Islamic State militants arose amongst media organizations around the world the crucial question of showing only still images of the brutal fact, its edited footage or an unimaged news report with or without the detailed description of the actual violence being committed.
On announcing the breaking news, most media organizations opted to use only photos while others aired partial video clips showing just the moments preceeding the execution without extending the horrifying news with aspects of cruelness or the violent act.
Extreme Journalism – On the other hand, it has been reported that within few hours from the release of the executers recorded footage, a popular US news channel posted on its website the entire video of the execution. The video clip was offered with no preamble, only a short text accompanied it warning the viewers that it was extremely graphic.
The network asserted that after a careful consideration they felt that giving their audience the option to see for themselves the barbarity outweighted legitimate concerns about the graphic nature of the video and that online users could choose to view or not view the disturbing content.
Furthermore, it has been accounted that the disturbing video clip had been posted as if it were just another extreme video, without explanation, without context and without editorial purpose. Considering that the video has been produced for the media and not by the media, this way of concentrating and reporting a news without offering a wider set of perspectives impacts people’s opinion, strongly leads to propaganda (in this case, rebroadcasting terrorist propaganda) and represents an utterly extreme behavior of transgressive media due to the photos or videos publishing of injured, dying or dead.
Should we condemn the network who put itself in the position of airing an unedited propaganda video?
Based on the latest high-profile cases, the open debate on broadcasting graphic images and obscenities is likely to become more relevant as the crisis in the Middle East continues to develop. The choices about whether to publish sensitive or shocking information or pictures are exceptionally difficult, especially because doing so can be enormously informative:
- The coverage of the shocking and brutal killing of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid worker David Haines, has led to intense condemnation of some media over the use of stills and images from the videos in their reports. Some captured the scene just moments before the executions and displayed them prominently on front pages around the world. In the United States, the issue has raised a heated discussion inside newsrooms.
- During the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, journalists and media have been fiercely divided: some news outlets believed they had to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons not just for their news values, but also in defence of press freedom and democracy. However, many other news media have decided not to publish the cartoons, choosing to defend their basic editorial values of not promoting hate speech.
- The publication and sharing of the video showing the execution of the French policeman by one of the killers is another questionable editorial decision. In the extremely graphic and disturbing video, shared on numerous social media platforms and through reputable media organisations, Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim and French officer, wounded on the ground, was shot point-blank to the head by the attacker. Some mitigated the impact by pixilating the victim’s face; others did not.
All these choices, each with an ethical base, show that this is not a simple matter of black and white choice in the newsrooms. It’s a deeply troubling and gray area of editorial decision-making.
Is extreme journalism ethical? Moreover, is extreme journalism newsworthy, propagandistic or exploitative?
How does it work – Ethics in journalism are based on professional conduct, morality and the truth. Media ethics are not only limited to traditional print publications, they are also extended to all forms of new media, including social media, online magazines and newspapers, blogs, newswire websites and other forms of digital media. Online journalists are more indispensable than ever in a mouse-click society that craves authentication of fact and that thirsts for news that is both reliable and instantaneous.
The digital era has also ushered in a new kind of journalism in which ordinary citizens play a greater role in the process of newsmaking, with the rise of citizen journalism being possible through the Internet. Using video camera equipped smartphones, active citizens are now enabled to record footage of news events and upload them onto channels like YouTube, which is often discovered and used by mainstream news media outlets.
People no longer seek out news. It often comes to them through social networks. Social media is speedy and empowering, yet journalists are still needed to help make sense of it all. When the internet becomes like the Wild West, it is up to journalists to filter the contents, first ensuring its accuracy and reliability, then providing useful background to the stories in order to help people understand its wider context. Journalism and information in general are all becoming more social and this trend will only continue. So, it’s important for presspeople to think about how to make their content social and how to take advantage of social networks.
Journalists should take a little more thinking-time about eventual hidden messages that published images may be sending and how they may affect the objectivity of a story.
One of the toughest calls journalists and editors must undergo is the decision whether to publish or not publish disturbing, violent and horrific images or videos. Pictures are worth 1,000 words – in the newspaper business that equals about 25 inches of print. Images are one of the most powerful forms of communication, especially in journalism. One image or sound can summarize an event or person or motivate a nation. One image can upset people more than endless pages of print on the subject. Powerful pictures and visual images always overpower the spoken word, they can help to explain stories better but they can also distort the truth by blurring the important context of the report.
What criteria should pressmen use when dealing with sensitive graphic images? Local or community standards? Newsworthiness? Dramatic impact? Commitment to tell the whole truth? If news outlets use graphic pictures of war, they are accused of exploiting the pain of others. If they avoid graphic photos, they are accused of “sanitizing” the conflict. Sometimes, however, media are more than willing to go along with what could be described as self-censorship, namely the responsibility to balance their desire to tell the story as vividly and as comprehensively as possible with their obligation to do no harm, to show humanity to the victims of violence and to avoid becoming platforms for vitriol and violent symbolism. So showing the faces of victims secs before their killing could be extremely distressing and may offend or disturb most readers and viewers.
There are existing ethical codes addressed in image usage. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code states that images should not misrepresent or oversimplify the information. It calls for journalists to “be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief”.
The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has a list of guidelines for the publishing of graphic material and states in part that professional electronic journalists should treat all subjects of news coverage with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. The code does not distinguish between a subject that is alive or dead.
Is extreme journalism avoiding unwittingly contribution of objectionable content to spread out?
Often media organizations are subject to various constraints by governments, military, corporate influence or economic interests. Most of the times, the pressure on journalists to report news promptly and before their competitors in addition to the insane covet for scooping the upmost cruelties in order to gain higher hits or sells, risks to abuse the basic principles of journalism (truth-telling, serving the public interest, acting responsibly and being accountable).
Journalists must realize that their articles can have a substantial impact on the people who read them. They must understand that their role is to be objective and be as accurate as possible in providing information. Therefore, they must hold honesty and accuracy to the highest esteem and take great responsibility and pride when they write their pieces. Journalists need to take a lot into consideration before they publish: their audience, the context, their own established values and, above all, the responsibility to act ethically when breaking the news.
On the web, users may choose to access a page or an image. If the image content is sensitive, it should be accompanied by an appropriate warning.
In 1999, when ethnic clashes in Borneo led to the deaths of hundreds, the New York Times printed a photo of a man on a scooter dragging a body. Online nytimes.com showed both the version of the picture and, after warning the web visitor of what was behind the click, a fuller version of the online picture showed that the person being dragged had been decapitated.
The implication that graphic and violent images, unsuitable for the print paper, are appropriate for the online news is due to the dynamic nature of the network. It allows a two-way communication and the abitity of the audience to get news and information on their own terms, to participate, to talk back and to choose what suits them. Web users are extremely sophisticated about such matters. While hundreds of readers complain about inappropriate images in their family newspaper, only few objections have been filed about clearly graphic images broadcasted on their family news site.
Who may really believe that someone needs to see images of an actual violence being committed?
As we see, among newsrooms and on the internet, this issue raises a lot of unsolved questions on ethics, responsabilities, sensibleness, morality, legibility, appropriateness, decentness when reporting or publishing disturbing and sensible graphics. Multiple aspects are at stake.
Nevertheless, as a reader, as a social network follower, as a mother, as a human being, a more questionable issue should be answered: who may really believe that someone needs to see images of an actual violence being committed? If so, what kind of people are these needers? At last, does this horrific documentation truly improve and add value to the news story?
This extreme journalism is far away from professional Journalism looking more likely as a low-class sensationally slasher movie storyteller.
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