Propaganda concerns, duty to tell whole story drive decisions about terror videos
There are no easy answers when journalists have to decide how to cover a terrorist group’s video.
The issue resurfaced Tuesday when a member of the Islamic extremist group ISIS was shown on camera beheading American journalist Steven Sotloff. No major news organization showed the gruesome conclusion of the ISIS video, but many did show screen grabs and short video clips of Sotloff and the executioner, as well as another hostage that ISIS is threatening to kill.
The video is newsworthy — even if it also plays into the propagandistic hands of the people who produced it.
But a vocal flock of viewers and readers — and some fellow journalists — have deplored the decisions to show snippets of the video, reprising arguments that were made in August when news organizations showed screen grabs of James Foley, another American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS.
“Can’t believe this bears repeating, but one should not empower ISIS by publishing their PR materials,” freelance journalist Jeb Boone wrote on Twitter after the Sotloff video emerged.
One major international broadcaster, Al Jazeera, said it had decided not to show any images of Sotloff from the video — a more conservative position than other television networks. “We suggest all media do the same,” Al Jazeera’s public relations account said via Twitter, using the hashtag #ISISmediaBlackout.
Not showing the video at all, however, risks sanitizing the grim reality of the world.
So most media outlets tried to strike a balance. ISIS “would like us to show you the most graphic images on that video, as part of their campaign of terror. We will not,” CBS News anchor Charlie Rose said as he introduced a segment about Sotloff’s death. Instead, CBS showed only video clips from it.
Media figures also tried to demonstrate some self-awareness when dealing with the issue.
“No way to avoid leading the show with ISIS butchery and yet, maddeningly, that also seems like what ISIS wants,” Chris Hayes wrote on Twitter before his 8 p.m. MSNBC program.
Newscasts tended to show more photos of Sotloff in the field, reporting on stories throughout the Middle East, than of him as a hostage. But screen grabs from the video were still widespread, including on CNN’s homepage and television networks.
The Foley video surfaced on the social media website Diaspora, as reported by INSITE, a blog on terrorism and extremism run by the SITE Intelligence group. It was later put on YouTube and promoted via Twitter.
The Sotloff video was discovered on an unidentified file-sharing website by the SITE Intelligence Group, which researches terrorist threats. Perhaps that’s why social media reactions to the Sotloff video were more muted — or perhaps, terribly, it’s because the shock value was diminished the second time around.