How should media cover American beheading

A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who disappeared in November 2012 in Syria.

A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who disappeared in November 2012 in Syria.

(CNN) — When confronted by gruesome images of a man being beheaded by terrorists, what should you do?

News organizations have grappled with these kinds of questions for decades.

Now, with the prevalence of social media, website operators and ordinary Internet users face the same question.

On Tuesday, when ISIS published a video showing the murder of American journalist James Foley, most Western news outlets shunned the goriest portion of the video but chose to show still photos from the minutes before the beheading.

Some commenters urged news outlets to exercise even more restraint and refrain from using the photos at all.

That same dynamic played out on Twitter and Facebook, as well. As some users shared photos and links to the video, others exhorted them to share earlier photos of Foley’s life and links to examples of his reporting instead. It was almost as if users were collectively developing their own sets of standards.

Kelly Foley, a cousin of the slain journalist, wrote on Twitter Tuesday night, “Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. That’s not how life should be.”

YouTube removes video

The slickly-produced, high-definition video was originally uploaded to YouTube, but was taken off the site within a matter of hours. YouTube also sought to take down duplicates whenever they were posted.

A YouTube representative said the site, owned by Google, has “clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users.”

“We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further its interests,” the representative added.

Twitter suspends accounts

Twitter faced similar issues on Tuesday — and a tremendous amount of pressure from its users about the balancing act between freedom of expression and basic human decency.

“We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery,” Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo wrote in an early Wednesday morning post on the site.

It all amounted to a particularly grotesque version of whack-a-mole. At one point Tuesday evening, simply tweeting the word “beheading” resulted in replies from spam accounts that attached a photo of Foley’s severed head.

Twitter briefly suspended the account of a journalist who shared photos of the beheading, but reinstated it later.

CNN is not airing the video on television or online, but is showing stills from the minutes before the beheading. The tabloid New York Post newspaper decided to go further, publishing on its front page a frame from the video that shows a terrorist beginning to cut into Foley’s head. The newspaper headline says “SAVAGES.”

Some Internet users subsequently suggested that the Post’s Twitter account should be suspended, too.

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