The hooded man clasps American journalist James Foley’s mouth with one hand, while his other hand presses a knife tightly against Foley’s neck. What happened next is clear. It is hard to look away from this photo, which explains why the New York Post ran the image on its front page the day after the beheading.

The video of Foley’s execution appeared on YouTube on Tuesday, August 19, shocking viewers around the world. Three more videos followed; they showed the executions of American reporter Steven Sotloff and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning.

Media outlets around the world relayed news of these murders, which were committed in gruesome fashion by the Islamic State (IS), a jihadist Sunni group that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the region between Turkey and Egypt. IS seeks regime change through violence; it has slaughtered thousands of civilians to further its means. Most recently, IS has published these videos as a form of public execution and psychological warfare.

As IS continues to broadcast its beheadings, viewers and media alike face important decisions: what is the effect of watching these videos? Under what circumstances should we show such violent content?

After Foley was beheaded, Shelly Kagan, Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, searched for the video, but he couldn’t find anything online. He later asked his son, who sent him the link within five minutes of browsing. It was then, however, that Kagan ultimately decided not to watch. “When I [first] wanted to watch the video, it was out of a regard for the victims,” said Kagan, noting that he had wanted to better grasp their experience. Some videos, he explained, can be relevant through their educational value; they provide the viewer with a vivid sense of what is being perpetrated. For example, Kagan notes that many who viewed the recent video of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée have gained a better understanding of the true severity of domestic violence.

Moreover, historical dramas like Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave play an important role in making their audiences aware of the conditions involved. But that wasn’t the case here—Kagan decided there was no educational value to gain from IS’s videos. Robert Drechsel, James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, picked up on the educational relevance of Holocaust videos as well. He explained in an interview with the Politic that “the question is whether [watching these videos] legitimately contributes to the public’s understanding of the story…People should see videos of the Holocaust because no words can express the crime that occurred.” Drechsel then stressed the failure of these execution videos to match those criteria. One doesn’t need to see this video to understand what has happened.

Journalism professor Steven Brill ’72, JD ’75 also hasn’t watched any of the videos. Watching these videos “constitutes the ultimate indignity to the victims,” explained Brill. “People watch these videos for the same reason they watch car accidents,” he said, going on to reject morbid curiosity as an acceptable reason for why some may opt to see the beheadings.

However, the act of watching these videos in and of itself doesn’t reveal the viewer’s motivations for doing so. As political science professor Jim Sleeper ’69 observed, “Whether it’s morallyacceptable [to watch the videos] depends ultimately on the viewer’s mindset and purposes, but for most people I suspect the motivation is sensationalism or prurience, like gawking at a horrific traffic accident.” Even worse, Sleeper suggests a more sinister effect of these videos: they transcend macabre fascination since they “[add] to the dehumanization of the victim, whose actual death is turned into a spectacle. Watching does advance the terrorists’ agenda: they despise us as much as the actual victims, and gawking makes us contemptible tactically as well as morally.” According to Sleeper, turning an individual’s actual beheading into a spectacle that can be watched again and again dehumanizes the viewers as well as the victim.

Sleeper raises the important question of whether “watching” constitutes something that is not only wrong but also harmful. By watching the victims die, one wonders if we implicitly advance the agenda of the militants who killed them. Islamic studies professor Frank Griffel certainly thinks so. He believes all American viewers have to ask themselves, “Am I encouraging this?” when they watch these videos. According to Griffel, the answer is “yes.”

Coverage of the beheadings enables IS to recruit more members to its cause by “inspiring confidence in the organization itself,” stated Griffel. “Over the summer, the number of IS fighters has more than doubled. In a civil war, [people] want to join the winning side. The Islamic State is most attractive when people fear them most.” Media coverage that sensationalizes the executions bolsters IS’s influence in the areas under IS control because, presumably, it helps terrify people into submission. Sleeper also identified how IS could benefit from the coverage on an international level. He conceded such publicity “might benefit IS strategically if the group’s aim is to provoke an asymmetrical war with the West that they believe the West can’t win, if only because the war will get too messy and ugly…to stomach.”

Griffel took time to note IS’s skillful use of psychological warfare. Iraqi soldiers often received their orders via text messages. Before IS took over Mosul, Iraq—their greatest success to date—they had texted Iraqi government soldiers telling them to flee or be killed. Clips of beheadings and rumors of captured Iraqi army leaders soon followed, which all contributed to the Iraqis’ loss of morale.

IS has essentially become a media outlet through its use of social media as a new weapon in its efforts, added Griffel. IS soldiers try to get as many “hits” on YouTube as possible, which later improves their chances on the battlefield. “All these pictures [you see] of people in black hoods are propaganda that IS put on the Internet,” warns Griffel. However, he doesn’t place responsibility solely on viewers to refrain from absorbing any harmful videos. Rather, some of the ethical burden falls on the media when determining whether to distribute that material. “The moment you use those pictures, you fall into their [IS’s] propaganda trap.” Consequently, it becomes as reprehensible to publish these videos as it is to watch them.

A censored version of the New York Post's controversial cover showing the execution of American journalist James Foley
A censored version of the New York Post’s controversial cover showing the execution of American journalist James Foley

Most, if not all, prominent media networks recognize the ethical consequences of publishing these videos, but they differ in how they factor these consequences into their decisions. A tweet from Al Jazeera posted on Tuesday, September 2 read, “We respect Steven Sotloff and won’t air images of his death, or him in a jumpsuit. We suggest all media do the same. #ISISmediaBlackout” Following James Foley’s beheading, the #ISISMediaBlackout hashtag trended on Twitter, as users urged others not to share the video or any other graphic images released by the group.

Those tweeting the hashtag seemed to want to honor the integrity of the victims. Kelly Foley, the journalist’s cousin, tweeted, “Don’t watch the video. Don’t share it. That’s not how life should be.” When one decides to watch or share the video, privacy concerns invariably come into play. We often think of death, after all, as inherently intimate and personal. The beheadings strip death of its significance and put the personal on display for the world to see.

How to proceed with such sensitive material is an incredibly complicated question, for which many news organizations may not have an answer. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists attempts to help journalists navigate these areas of moral ambiguity. One of the four main principles in the Code of Ethics calls upon journalists to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Steven Brill doesn’t see much of an ethical conflict here between the public’s rights and the media’s interests. He asserted, “Whether media outlets publish these videos is at their own discretion.” Brill highlights the difference here between law and ethics; between what media organizations should do and can do. He recognizes that legal access to information differs from an ethical rationale to publish. Just because the media has the legal grounds to share a video of a beheading does not mean it is ethical to do so. The instruction to “minimize harm” perhaps applies most to the victims’ families—concern exist that if you watch the video, you are violating the families’ privacy, regardless of whether they know, and that vioatlion could constitute a kind of harm in itself. While it’s difficult to link all media together in terms of this question, the mainstream media faces serious ethical consequences regarding the nature of its material and its impact on the victims’ families and other viewers.

Since the videos’ release, an intense debate has taken root among the international community about the manner in which they were covered. Many have wondered whether the front page of the New York Post and those of other publications went too far. At what point do reports of these acts move from legitimate news coverage to an indulgence of our morbid curiosity? The same question is usually asked of any police report or coverage on a violent conflict, such as the civil war in Syria. That “depends on viewers and readers as much as on the media,” explained Drechsel. “It’s the point at which one can no longer easily justify the public interest that is being served. At that point, [the reporting] is going too far and poses a serious ethical problem.” Like Drechsel, Brill weighs the value of informing people against the collateral damage incurred. When he founded CourtTV in 1989, which featured continuous live trial coverage, Brill had ruled that the network would never show anyone’s children. Doing so would constitute a needless invasion of a family’s privacy, Brill believed, and wasn’t ever relevant to the story at hand.

Nevertheless, Sleeper goes further, ascribing much more culpability, previously reserved for IS, to media outlets. “It’s when news ‘coverage’ turns the horror into a spectacle or a war-cry that forecloses any intelligent thinking,” ventured Sleeper, who also noted “some news media have come awfully close to doing that.” Their handling of the news has led to an oversimplified, dramatized version of events that obfuscates the public’s understanding of the situation and appropriate responses.

To demonstrate his points, Sleeper held up the Daily News and New York Post covers in his “Global Journalism, National Identities” seminar. The Western media, Sleeper argued, pursued provocation and profit. “They weren’t ‘informing’ and empowering a rational public,” Sleeper asserted, but rather “bypassing people’s brains and hearts on the way to their gut fears and resentments and, from there, to their wallets via the ads that were always interlaced with the drama.” The public sphere had been “short-circuited,” said Sleeper. As citizens decided an appropriate course of action, the coverage of the beheadings appealed to our baser instincts instead of our reason.

According to Sleeper, “It wasn’t only ISIL that dramatized the beheadings via neutral social media. ISIL knew that media corporations, which exist to glue eyeballs to screens on any pretext, no matter how nihilist or degrading, were reliable allies.”

Others have also voiced their frustration with this paradox. Chris Hayes, an MSNBC political commentator, tweeted on Tuesday, September 2: “No way to avoid leading the show with ISIS butchery and yet, maddeningly, that also seems like what ISIS wants.” The same coverage meant to highlight the horrific nature of the Islamic State’s crimes also seems to confirm the group’s ascendancy.

Even if we establish that the existence of the video is unethical, who bears moral accountability for them is unclear. There’s disagreement as to whether the burden falls more on the viewers not to watch the video or on the organizations not to publish the video. Drechsel believes media networks have an obligation to weigh the pros and cons themselves. “If media outlets use the excuse that viewers can decide for themselves,” remarks Drechsel, “that’s just passing the buck.” But Jolyon Howorth, visiting professor of political science, has a different take. He believes the media shouldn’t withhold information from the public; the decision to watch these videos ultimately rests on the individual. Howorth pointed out, “War is hell. To withhold from the public elements of its reality, as was done, for instance, in the Falklands War or the First Gulf War, is to engage in a form of control which assumes that people either should not know or are unable to handle the knowledge. Neither position is justifiable. At the end of the day, it is up to each individual to decide whether or not to watch.”

In their most recent execution video, IS threatened to kill another hostage, American Army veteran Peter Kassig. Despite pleas directly to IS from Kassig’s family, as each day passes, it seems increasingly likely that IS will release a video of his beheading. This release will lead to the need for a critical decision: how much attention should we pay to the next execution video? In the end, we collectively will determine how much coverage future beheadings receive and thus how much power IS’s videos have.

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