Where is the line between news value and shock value in communicating the horror of James Foley's beheading by Islamic militants?

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

When violence goes viral, when is enough enough?

How much is too much when brutal, barbaric images are widely available for publication and sharing?

Where should media organizations — and indeed, any one of us on social media — draw the line in publishing and sharing disturbing images of the gruesome beheading of an American journalist?

These were the questions debated widely in both mainstream and social media this week in the aftermath of the shocking release of a graphic video showing the execution of journalist James Foley by the Islamic militant group ISIS.

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On Tuesday night, shortly after the video was posted on YouTube and began circulating through social media, the Twitter hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout trended with people close to Foley — many of them journalists — imploring that no one publish or share the video or images from it, on grounds that doing so played into the ISIS propaganda machine and was disrespectful to Foley’s memory.

Soon after, YouTube removed the video. Then, Twitter began to suspend accounts of some individuals who shared the “graphic imagery” from the video. As well, Foley’s family asked that people not share the graphic images. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported Scotland Yard’s warning that viewing, downloading or disseminating the video could be considered a crime in Britain.

I can’t imagine that anyone — particularly journalists whose role it is to bear witness to truth — could truly expect that no images whatsoever from the video would be published by mainstream media and shared on social media. This is a significant news story.

The question is where do we draw the line? Does a still image from the video depicting Foley on his knees with a masked man in black holding a knife to his throat go too far? Or is anything short of showing the beheading itself in line with the newsworthiness of this story? Then too, some argue they should be see the entire video and judge for themselves.

As with any debate about how far is too far when it comes to graphic images, there are no clear answers here. On the continuum of communicating horror, determining the line between news value and shock value is always subjective.

So, how did the Toronto Star handle these controversial images?

Like most other media organizations, as I would expect, the Star published a still image from the video showing Foley on his knees with his killer. But the newsroom went further still.

Throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, the Star’s web story included an edited version of the video that stopped short of Foley’s beheading but showed him minutes before his death reading from what appeared to be a prepared statement and speaking his final words to his “beloved parents.”

Editor Michael Cooke, who made the decision to publish the video and supervised its editing, told me he did so because it conveyed truth about Foley and the terrorists who took his life.

“I felt it important people hear that brave man speak . . . both to demonstrate his courage (calm voice, straight face, resolution to his fate) and to show viewers the absolute cruelty of his killers. And yes, I understand the horror of it even with the throat-cutting edited out.

“Hearing the Brit accent of the executioner is crucial in understanding where these terrorists are coming from — our own backyard. If you ever wondered about ISIS, wonder no more.”

I found the Star’s video deeply disturbing, chilling. For me, it went too far in depicting Foley in the moments before his death. Had it been my call, I don’t think I would have published it.

But Cooke is a tough editor who believes deeply in shining a light on information, not suppressing it. And this was in line with the Star’s policy on graphic images, which gives the editor responsibility for such difficult decisions.

To continue reading this column, please go thestar.com where this was originally published. 

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.