The videos are shocking, repulsive and horrifying. Yet they would likely attract tens of thousands of viewers who have few qualms about watching appalling content. As a broadcaster, do you put them on the air or hold back?
Many TV-news outlets are grappling with that issue this week as they judge whether or not to unspool elements from a video depicting the beheading of journalist Steven Solotoff by Islamic militants. The video, the second of its kind in recent days (a previous one showed the beheading of another journalist, James Foley) would give news programs a chance to show with gut-wrenching detail the acts of a terrorism organization that are certain to affect foreign-policy decisions. At the same time, they risk becoming propaganda outlets for the perpetrators, a group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS.
“The temptation is always to put it out there. That’s pretty much the default position of any news organization,” says John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University. “Clearly, the public does not want these videos out there circulating, but that’s not necessarily the mandate for news organizations.”
TV-news outlets have faced similar issues in the past. When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Pakistani militants and subsequently murdered by them in 2002, video of the ghastly act was available. Boston University’s Carroll recalls alternative weekly The Boston Phoenix publishing several still photos and offering a link to video on a website.
The majority of outlets have shied away from showing anything more than stills, screen grabs or a few seconds from the videos. At Al Jazeera America, “We have not and will not air any video or audio from the horrific tapes,” the network said in a statement. “These videos are used for propaganda and we want no part of that. We can report the facts without showing the images.”
At Fox News Channel, “what we try to do is use judgement so that people are informed about what actually happened while showing as little of what took place as possible,” says Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news/editorial.
During CNN’s”Legal View” on Wednesday, the network’s senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson filed a report that was accompanied by some video that showed corpses of people who had been killed by Islamic militants. CNN has also aired audio of one of the English-accented militants who has appeared in ISIS videos of the slain journalists, said Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, in an interview.
“It’s clear that these videos are having a big impact on different countries, on government policy, on overseas policy, and it’s not for CNN to say therefore viewers shouldn’t see them,” he says. CNN has not actually shown beheadings or violent acts, he said, but has identified particular elements that would provide viewers with information they ought to have. CBS showed seconds-long video clips from ISIS videos during a Charlie Rose-anchored edition of its “CBS Evening News.”
“I have not seen the execution themselves” on any of the evening-news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC, “but all have used portions of the videos containing them: masked executioner standing over kneeling condemned man in orange,” notes Andrew Tyndall, who runs the Tyndall Report media-monitoring service.
Should these videos proliferate, there is a risk that they could lose some of their shock value and TV-news outlets could lose some of their inhibitions. CNN’s Maddox maintains producers and executives will always think twice – or more – before putting such stuff on air. “Barbarism never loses its power to truly shock,” he says.
No matter how TV-news executive choose to filter their content, keeping the public’s sensibilities in mind, viewers will be able to find it anyway, thanks to a world in which even the most alarming acts can be found with a Google search and a few clicks of the keyboard.