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Debate Room: Was the New York Post's front page photo of James Foley unethical?

We look in more detail at an issue which has caused widespread anger…

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

A DEBATE ERUPTED online yesterday after an American newspaper published an image showing the moments leading up to the murder of US journalist James Foley by IS militants.

The front page picture, published by the New York Post, was a still image taken from the graphic video uploaded to YouTube by the group, and showed Foley kneeling as a masked man held a knife against his throat. It has since been confirmed that the video was genuine and Foley was beheaded moments after the image was made.

Outrage poured across news and social media in response to the picture, with the publication’s decision being described as “sickening” and the editors accused of lacking a sense of restraint and basic decency”.

However, not all agree that the publication of the image – although horrifying – was wrong.

We asked two media commentators to examine the issue and give a brief breakdown of its implications…

Markham Nolan, Managing Editor of Vocativ.com and TED speaker, argues that war has been sanitised for the western viewer and, as such, many are ignorant to its realities:

As someone who has watched a large volume of gruesome war videos and been part of a team tasked with doing so, I understand better than most why others shy away from that sort of imagery. But the wave of people on Twitter, urging others to censor a gruesome event out of internet existence, doesn’t sit well with me. War has been sanitised for the western viewer, to the point that most of us don’t really understand its worst excesses.If we are to be fully motivated to end war, we need to fully understand how bad it can be.

Everyone is free to make decisions on what they view or don’t view, of course, and some groups need to be protected from particularly graphic material (children, in particular, which is a major motivator for YouTube in taking down violent videos).

That said, our decisions to watch, or not to watch, should be arrived at independently. Editors know (or should know) that they make those decisions on our behalf by publishing on a front page of a newspaper, which is visible on shop shelves, and almost unavoidable.

Barry Finnegan, media lecturer at Griffith College Dublin, thinks asking whether the New York Post’s decision was ethical or not may be too narrow a question – instead, we should examine the idea of which victims are considered ‘worthy’ of attention by news media:

There is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the New York Post’s front cover photo of the imminent murder of James Foley is either a necessary and accurate depiction of the danger posed by terrorist groups, or that it is a gratuitous and cynical move designed to sell newspapers.

There is ample evidence to demonstrate that historically, western media war photography serves to advance the political and economic interests of our governments and companies.The NYP’s publication of this photograph (video still) is both predictable and in the tradition of western media’s concept of ‘the worthy and unworthy victim’ (developed by Noam Chomsky) and the News Values theory (developed by Galtung & Ruge).

Basically:

(a) we do show dead bodies and gory images when the bad guys kill us (or our people, or the ones we are identifying with in that part of the world); and,

(b) we do not show dead bodies and gory images when we, the good guys, kill them (or their people, or the ones we are fighting against in that part of the world).

  • What do you think? Should the feelings of a victim’s family and friends come first – or is it more important to inform the public about the stark realities of conflicts? If you were an editor faced with this decision, what would you do? Let us know in the comments below and take part in today’s poll

US sent mission to try and rescue James Foley

Video of journalist James Foley being beheaded is authentic, says White House

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About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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