Media beheadings: The ethical conundrum for journalists reporting on the case of James Foley

Surely one of the most sensitive things for any journalist to report on is death, yet whether it be a disaster zone or a murder victim, journalists are tasked with navigating the ethical minefield of reporting these stories on a seemingly routine basis. There is no doubt there’s an inherent ‘newsworthiness’ and inevitable public interest in many of these cases, but finding the right balance between properly covering a story while being respectful, sympathetic and compassionate is a difficult one to find.

Throw into the mix a terrorist group who are sending poignant political messages in the form of recorded beheadings, however, and the ethical conundrum for professional communicators becomes very complicated indeed.

The uploading of a video to YouTube, which shows the graphic beheading of United States journalist James Foley at the hands of militant Jihadi group Islamic State, made headlines around the world this year. Even in spite of a United States media blackout and requests from his family not to have images of his last moments published, it was practically impossible to find a news outlet who didn’t run personal details about Foley, and few could resist the temptation of such powerful imagery – a man with a knife to his throat, in the last moments of his life, at the hands of a masked executioner.

Public outrage followed, but the subsequent argument over the publishing of such material become a largely semantic one: Should a picture of Foley being beheaded be big or small? Should his face be blurred? Should it be in colour or black and white? Should it be on the front page or buried deeper? How close should the knife be to his throat To many, though, the pictures simply should never have been run at all – it was either considered utterly disrespectful to Foley and his family,  too grotesque to stomach (particularly for children), or helping the Islamic State cause. For any journalist, the images are undeniably powerful and undeniably newsworthy, but is the publishing of such images truly justified? Is it disrespectful, and does it play into the hands of terrorists, where publicity could prove further incentive for the beheading (or the raising of ransoms) of other Western hostages? Should the public even be exposed to such brutal imagery? Is this all really for the greater public good?

There’s little doubt that naming Foley, as well as showing images from his brutal last moments humanizes the story but, as Ginny Whitehouse asserts, it’s virtuous for journalists to allow families to grieve the loss of a loved one “within the inner circles of their own choosing and have some control over how private facts about their loved one, however publicly posted, are shared” (2010, p. 322). In the case of the Foley family, while they were ultimately allowed by the media to grieve in relative privacy without intrusion, as outlined in journalistic codes of ethics, they still no doubt had to suffer though witnessing their loved ones’ final moments over and over again, even in spite of their requests for the media not to publish – it was seemingly impossible to avoid the coverage. But while it’s true that Foley’s family has quite a thick privacy boundary (which was largely respected) due to their fame by chance, through Foley’s work as a journalist who focused on these issues (fame by achievement and activism), his personal privacy threshold is much thinner. Add to this the fact that the video was uploaded on the internet, and that Foley’s name was already being talked about across social media, continuing the United States media blackout appeared an untenable position for news organizations – Foley’s death was already very much a public one. The question remains, however, as to how many people would have actually seen the footage had it not been essentially force fed to them by the media. There’s no doubt they gave oxygen to the Islamic State video.

Foley’s death was not simply a terrible tragedy or even an ‘average’ murder, but was produced and disseminated by the Islamic State across the internet to cause fear, intimidate, and as some believe, to goad the West into a great religious and cultural war. While the video certainly served as a warning to the United States and its allies to stay out of the conflict manifesting in Iraq, given the British accent of Foley’s executioner, it seems difficult to believe the Islamic State would underestimate the ability of such material to strengthen the resolve of Allied forces. Furthermore, Islamic State’s use of social media and the wider internet as a propaganda and recruitment tool has to date been incredibly sophisticated, and broadcasting these messages to wider audiences is likely exactly what the group wanted. This, obviously, makes a journalist’s ethical decision whether (or to what extent) to publish one that may have wide-reaching implications.

This is all something that would greatly concern consequentialists, and this ethical perspective – particularly the utilitarian notion of the ‘greater good’ as outlined by John Stewart Mill (building off the work of Jeremy Bentham) – is extremely valuable in trying to grapple with many of the complex problems evident in this case. Many consider a utilitarian framework would essentially advocate for publishing, but as Deni Elliott explains, “in contrast to the simplistic reasoning sometimes offered – it is okay if an individual is hurt by the publication of a story or picture, as the journalist can argue that many more citizens might benefit from having the knowledge or seeing the picture – Mill requires calculating what is truly good for the whole community. If causing harm is justified at all, it is justified on the basis that causing harm in those particular types of cases is good for the community, including the individual harmed” (2007, p. 101). With this in mind, it remains unclear as to whether Mill would have supported the publication of the Foley story at all. When considering some of the potential consequences, maybe he wouldn’t, but he certainly wouldn’t stop its publication on the grounds of it being too grotesque, because “the kind of happiness Mill had in mind when he counselled that human action should promote happiness is that which adheres to the most fully human experience. Indeed, Mill suggested that the more aware we are of the higher pleasures, the less satisfied we are likely to be (Elliott, 2007, p. 140). Or as Clifford G Christians eloquently puts it, “it is better to be a dissatisfied Einstein than a blissfully happy ignoramus” (2007, p. 114). In this regard, the publishing of the material may indeed be for the ‘greater good’ in that the public is fully informed about the world in which they live, hence reaching greater enlightenment, but at the same time it would be difficult for consequentialists to dismiss the incredible risk of further beheadings, the escalation of war, or the further recruitment to the Islamic state. Elliott herself would argue that the publication of such footage is unjust – Foley didn’t deserve this kind of exposure and neither did his family.

Because Australia and the West in general is becoming increasingly involved in the situation in Iraq, deontologists would argue that this type of coverage better informs the voting citizen about the true nature of the conflict. Indeed, journalists have a duty to inform the public from a deontological perspective, though this is not without reservations. In relation to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the publication of Foley’s graphic death wouldn’t be doing “to others what that person would done to himself or herself” (Breit, 2011, p. 101), and it certainly isn’t respectful to Foley’s life or his family’s wishes. As Karen Sanders points out, “the maxim, ‘act to treat human beings always as an end and not merely as a means’ would create huge difficulties for journalists who think only of getting a good story” (Sanders, 2003, p. 18), and in this regard it appears many news organisations and journalists simply didn’t show enough compassion for the individual involved and instead got caught up in the magnitude of the story. Like Kant, W.D. Ross would have issues with a lack of the prima facie duties of beneficence and justice, as well as the possibility of injuring others, and there are also concerns around the commercial reasoning behind running such footage so prominently – it catches attention, drives sales/viewers, and the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle to ‘be first’ are strong. In essence, journalists’ egoism got in the way of being truly altruistic to Foley and his family.

Jamie Dettmer, however, argues that “U.S. and U.K. officials don’t want reporting on captives, giving the terrorists tremendous propaganda power when they reveal the prisoners about to be executed” (The Daily Beast, 2014), and that censorship and media blackouts do nothing to curb the rates of beheadings, or the ransoms these people’s lives demand. He goes on to say that, “it isn’t clear why, or who is best served by the restrictions. Some frustrated family members, who feel neither the U.S. or U.K. governments are doing enough, argue the blackouts take public pressure off the officials” (The Daily Beast, 2014). For Dettmer, whether or not to publish (or to what extent to publish) is very much a question of freedom of expression, and Wojciech Sadurski believes “democracy requires that citizens be free to review all information which may affect their choices in the process of collective decision-making and, in particular, in the voting process (1999, p. 21 in Breit, 2011, p.67)”. But Sadurski’s communitarian view of freedom of expression, however, means that its value “is determined by the extent to which it promotes community values and matters of importance are affected by commitments, loyalties and obligations that go beyond the characteristically liberal considerations related to ‘fairness, reciprocity and consent’” (Sadurski 1999, p. 223 in Breit, 2011, p. 68). While this may sound like an argument against publishing, it’s worth considering the case of Neda Agha Soltan, who became an international symbol for Iranian freedom after her death as part of the Green Revolution. As Ginny Whitehouse explains:

“American television news programs digitally distorted Soltan’s face when blood began pouring from her mouth and nose, indicating a desire to protect her privacy at the moment of her death. Other news organizations included the entire video on Web sites, and the images were forwarded on via Twitter and YouTube. The incredibly private images of death in this case were crucial to building international understanding the Green Revolution and how Soltan, a truly innocent bystander, died. The need to blur her face can be debated, for the distortion does chill the emotional power of the images. Drawing from YouTube clearly was a justified invasion of privacy, one that would pass an ethical balancing test. Here, the worth of the public knowledge exceeded the price of private pain” (2010, p. 323).

In this regard, publishing the story of Foley in such graphic detail brings into focus the plight of the hostages, particularly journalists who are often inexperienced and put in bad situations with limited security by cost-cutting news organisations. It serves the purpose of prompting officials to take more responsibility, makes the case for why Western countries should be taking greater action against the Islamic State, and informs the public interest. Perhaps this could mean Foley didn’t die in vain.

So, on the one side of the ethical coin is the public’s right to know, that all information should be available, and that government officials and media organizations should be put under increased public scrutiny; on the other side is the real concern that extensive coverage is exactly what the Islamic State wanted, and whether it’s really appropriate or respectful to show such brutal images. This is where an individual journalists decisions come into play in terms of how exactly the story is told. If running the story is indeed justified, it could be run without identifying Foley in order to respect his family’s privacy and to lessen the overall impact of the Islamic State’s propaganda. Alternatively, name Foley and tell the story, but focus on his achievements and shy away from the details. If a still from the video, or part of the video is shown, it could be tempered by blurring Foley’s face. Perhaps the image shouldn’t be on front pages, away from the eyes of children and members of the public without the fortitude to stomach such coverage. All these things would show a much greater sensitivity to Foley’s death and compassion towards his family’s grief, but in the 24-hour news cycle time in often a deciding factor, and there’s strong competition to tell the story quickly. In order to lessen apparent egoism, publications should take the time to critically evaluate the ethical concerns in order to be more altruistic to the Foley family’s needs and better respect the life of James.

Indeed, many news organisations have heeded this advice with coverage of the subsequent beheadings of David Haines and Steven Sotloff. Whether this is because of the public outcry at the treatment of Foley or genuine ethical reflection on the part of the journalists involved is unclear, and stricter codes of ethics could certainly be put in place to clarify exactly what the best way to cover these stories is. Publishing with more consideration, rather than adhering to media blackouts and not publishing at all, or going all out and showing a full-frontal beheading, seems to be a happy medium, but it’s one that’s still fraught with danger.