The Islamic State is winning the propaganda war, propelled by traditional and social media outlets that either entice new recruits or frighten the rest of the world.
The videotaped beheadings of two U.S. journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, raise important ethical questions about how media outlets from The New York Times to Twitter deal with such violence. Should the media provide all of the video evidence of the murders, some of it or none of it? What emphasis should the murders be given in the traditional television outlets? What censorship role should social media have?
The Society of Professional Journalists has a special section in its code of ethics concerning the need to minimize harm. In the category, the code states, “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm … Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”
At what point does the coverage of the beheadings create harm by enabling the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, to recruit more members to its cause? Does the public’s right to know and to see the murders harm the families of the victims? At what point does the reporting of these acts move from legitimate news coverage to pandering to lurid curiosity?
The New York Times, which I often criticize, seemed to have taken an ethical approach in reporting the murder of Mr. Sotloff, a U.S. journalist working in Syria for a variety of news outlets. The Times ran rather short story on the front page and used only one photo. Alternatively, a Dutch online news organization played the entire video, including the start of the attack and the actual beheaded corpse.
Many news organizations didn’t strike the right balance. The Wall Street Journal, for example, described its policy in a video report against showing the beheading, but then the news organization played an audio version of the executioner’s rant against the United States. The major television networks took a similar approach, giving the voice of the British jihadist great prominence.
I think the use of the voice of the executioner moves the reporting toward lurid curiosity rather than news, violating the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Reuters, an important English-language news service used by many organizations, broadcast almost the entire statement from Mr. Sotloff and his executioner without the actual beheading. Since the news service often edits its written stories, I would have preferred an edited version of the video to minimize harm under the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Social media, particularly YouTube and Twitter, came under intense criticism for the inability to control the posting of the video of the murder of James Foley, the first U.S. journalist the Islamist group killed two weeks ago. Despite their policies to prevent terrorists from using the media for recruiting followers and showing violence, YouTube and Twitter still had problems keeping the second video off their sites. The reaction of the two operations, however, has been somewhat more effective for the Sotloff murder.
What seems clear is that YouTube cannot depend mainly on users to report abuse. For example, a recent report from the Wilson Center found that out of 125 videos flagged by users, 57 were still online more than four months later.
Twitter has apparently become the medium of choice for ISIS, which reportedly has developed its own Twitter application to create new accounts whenever the site closes one. In response, some Twitter users created the hashtag, #ISISMediaBlackout, asking people not to share the videos of the beheadings or any other information about the actions of the terrorist group.
Although YouTube and Twitter cannot technically be called journalistic entities, these organizations also need to look at the ethical questions behind what they allow to be posted and work more diligently to enforce their own standards of abuse. Otherwise, the Islamic State will continue to use these executions and other depravities to recruit more followers and to win the propaganda war.
• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He covered the Middle East for Newsweek and ABC News. He can be contacted at email@example.com.