A Hung Ethics Jury On Fox’s Broadcast Of The Isis Burning Video


The burning ethics issue of the moment is in the field of broadcast journalism, and Ethics Alarms is obligated to weigh in.

Who is right, the pundits are asking: Fox News, for defiantly posting on its website the 22-minute video from the Islamic State terror group that shows Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned to death, or all the other U.S. news organizations that have refused to do so?

Fox’s decision has been criticized by its own media ethics watchdog, Howard Kurtz, as excessive and unnecessary, and by anti-terrorism experts, who unanimously say that this plays into the ISIS strategy. Malcolm Nance of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology said the Fox was “literally – literally – working for al-Qaida and Isis’s media arm. They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”

Here are the Ethics Alarms observations on the controversy. The short version: I doubt everyone’s motives here, and nobody on any side of the journalism ethics debate is consistent or trustworthy. Unlike me.

1. Here are the relevant tenets of the Code of Conduct of the Society of Professional Journalists.

[NOTE: I almost said “quaint” Code of Conduct of the Society of Professional Journalists. Today all journalists—yes, I think that’s fair—ignore the Code and violate one or more of its principles daily, for example, the very first statement in it: “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.” Yesterday one of the biggest stories involved NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ 13-year-old fantasy regarding his helicopter exploits, now revealed to be false, and, apparently, aided and abetted by the network, which knew he was misrepresenting facts and di nothing about it. Williams didn’t mention the story in his broadcast last night. Was that an accurate representation of the news of the day? No.]

I have lettered them for reference:

Journalists should:

[ Sorry, another NOTE :I would have more respect for the code if it used “shall,” as in “you are not ethical if you don’t” rather than “should,” which means “it’s best practice, but do what you have to…”]

a. Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

b. Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

c. Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

d. Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

e. Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

f. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

g. Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

h. Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.

i. Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.

You can easily see that an ethical journalist could reach the decision to show the horrible video or not show it, depending on which of these tenets he or she rated as most important. a, b, c, h and i could be used to justify and support Fox’s decision. c, d, e, f, g, h and i could point to the opposite call, withholding the video.

An ethical journalist must begin with the obligation to report the news as completely and accurately as possible, and as completely as possible means showing the event itself if a video recording is available. The standard warnings about graphic, violent, disturbing images and clearing any children out of the rooms are essential, of course. The point is that if someone wants to see the event being reported on, they should be able to see it. Eric Wemple, one of the Washington Post’s media critics, agrees with Fox:

“…this piece of propaganda is newsworthy propaganda, as the extensive coverage of the past 24 hours attests. Some outlets merely describe the video, some show various still photos, but just about all have thrown a platoon of reporters on the story and condemned the inhumanity of ISIS. As Fox News states, however, the best way of doing that is simply posting the video.”

2. On the other hand, this atrocity is not like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which one had to see to understand why they inflamed the radical Muslims, and how absurd it was for anyone to die for drawing them. “A Jordanian pilot was set on fire and burned alive” accurately describes what is on the video; I don’t understand why anyone who is mentally healthy and of normal intelligence needs more. (Well, maybe Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, who, you will recall, suspended Ray Rice for a paltry two games knowing that the professional athlete knocked out his fiance with a punch to the face, then vastly upped the penalty after the video was made public, saying, in essence, “Oh! THAT kind of punch in a woman’s face! I’m horrified!”) I’ve seen some graphic representations of burning alive, as in “The Last of the Mohicans,” thanks. I don’t have to see the real thing.

3. Is Fox showing the video, therefore, to pander “to lurid curiosity”? I wouldn’t put it past them.

4. Would Fox show the video if it were an American pilot being burned? I strongly doubt it, and if that’s the case, then Fox is hypocritical to show the graphic death of the Jordanian pilot.

5. I’m troubled by Fox News’ official explanation, first used by anchor Bret Baier when he showed still photos of  Muath al-Kaseasbeh in flames, that Fox was “showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such.” This sounds like a political agenda to me. The President is hesitating to call such acts Islamic terrorism, so Fox wants to contradict him by shocking and enraging viewers. That’s not its job.

6. On the other side, I see no integrity or consistency in the mainstream media’s choice, other than the fact that it consistently allows ideological bias to control what should be pure news decisions. When Hamas was encouraging the networks and other news organizations to show graphic images of children killed and wounded by Israeli missiles in Gaza, the images were widely published. I’m not convinced that they were objectively balancing “the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” in that case; I think they were indulging their anti-Israel bias, and “literally” working for the Palestinian and Hama’s media arm.

7. The decision not to show the photos and the video so as not to do the terrorist’s mad work is too similar to the bad reasoning of Zeynep Tufekci, the censorious Princeton professor who has argued that the news media should embargo news regarding mass murders. What I wrote in my post about her applies here:

To withhold information from the tiny sliver of the population that will react irrationally to it, Zeynep Tufekci and others assert that information should be kept from everyone—except, perhaps, them. It is the same “logic” behind the most radical gun control proposals, but far, far more sinister, because it endorses the withholding of information—of truth—“for the common good.” Worse, it puts that power, which is the very power that the Founders sought to protect democracy from when wielded by what they thought would be its primary likely enemy, the state, in the hands of those who have proven themselves in recent decades unfit, by ideology, intelligence, education, ethical analysis powers, honesty, objectivity, and integrity, to handle such a responsibility, since they can’t even be responsible, fair and objective with the power and responsibilities they have now.

This is the ends justifies the means at it worst: hide the truth, because some madman out there will misuse it. Or some radical. Or some revolutionary. Or a candidate. Or a voter.

8. Are the same news editors indulging their desire to support, as usual, President Obama’s policies by not focusing public outrage on Islamic radical terrorism?

I wouldn’t put it past them.

9. What is ultimately important is that the U.S. public has access to the information, and if it wants to see what cruelty, extremism and hate look like, it can, thanks to Fox News. Though convoluted, perhaps self-serving and even unethical motives, the public is being informed, and journalism is doing its job, and in this case, better than usual.


Source: Washington Post

34 thoughts on “A Hung Ethics Jury On Fox’s Broadcast Of The Isis Burning Video

  1. There is one reason I can think for showing the video that may be valuable, and that is to show the terrorists that the American people will not be cowed by their actions. That the country is prepared to face atrocities, recognize them as such and confront the perpetrators without no fear nor arrogance. It would be a more extreme version of the “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” policy – which has been now shown to be a sham, but I digress. Matter of factly saying “You are bad people, but you are not a threat because we are stronger than that.”

    Of course that would require near universal support for showing it, with a corresponding level of tact by news media to handle the issue. Something that will never happen in the current climate . Not that I believe for a second that this was the actual motivation for posting the video.

    Unfortunately, with all the disagreement on both rational and irrational bases, the American people is now showing to the world some cracks in its communal identity, which does play straight into the terrorists’ plan. I don’t know what the solution is, but I suspect this episode is another manifestation of a deeper theme that we need to be more alert for.

  2. People don’t know how to use “unique,” either. It means, literally, one of a kind. There is no ‘somewhat unique,” no “most unique.” Something is either unique or it isn’t. The interchangeability of “literal” and ‘figurative” in our usage is indicative of, and further promotes, the decline of meaning in our communicative

  3. My coworkers and colleagues have been discussing this video for days.
    There are two opinions:

    1. We (meaning Americans) are all required to view it so we can adequately understand the enemy and what they are capable of.
    Their feeling is, as with the Holocaust, for example, the words cannot express what the films can.
    2. No one should be watching the video because you are allowing yourself to be terrorized, which is exactly the intent of these savages.

    I have a third viewpoint: I personally would not even try to watch the video because I already know that I would never be able to get that imagery out of my head.
    I’m still traumatized over torture scenes in movies that I saw years ago.
    However, I do agree about the Holocaust film(s) – everyone needs to see that.

    • I don’t need to be convinced that those who do this are already ugly bags of mostly water, I already am. But I suspect I will be so horrified if I watch it I might spout stupid dreck pacifism out of fear, and I prefer to reason instead.

  4. I answered the question this way. Would the US have engaged the Nazi’s earlier had video images of Dachau, Auschwitz and Buchenwald been available to be seen in the U.S.? Probably, and it might have saved tens of thousands of innocent lives if Hitler had to deal with us in 1939.

    Sometimes America has to be jarred awake or at least be made to put down their cell phone for a few minutes to see the evil that confronts them.

    As for Malcolm Nance, of the Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology, said the Fox was “literally – literally – working for al-Qaida and Isis’s media arm. They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”

    What is his recommendation – ignore them and they will go away? Is he a believer in “Strategic Patience”. What makes him the expert – a long project name? How successful has he been in counteracting or diluting the effects of ISIS sponsored propaganda. Not very as far as I can tell.

    The ethical question should be are we looking at the video for information or are we doing so to satisfy our own lurid interest? I chose not to view it but agree that is should be available for people to see.

  5. So, why do they not want us to view the video? Is it because if we saw it, we would ignore our President’s call to pander to such people? Are they afraid that if we saw it, we would ignore the academic arguments that “we have to remember that this isn’t truly Islam and Islam is a religion of peace” or that “we have to make sure this doesn’t increase the negative perception of Islam”? Maybe they are afraid that we will be enraged, as the Jordanian king was. It was reported that King Hussein posted a rather militant picture of himself on the Royal Facebook page (he is a Cobra helicopter pilot) and quoted a Clint Eastwood character from Unforgiven.

    • Well, we’re supposed to get off of our high horse about the burning alive of people, beheading of children, wanton murder and general savagery because Jim Crow.

      So it’s not good to show those images because Americans are just as bad.

      • You have no idea how I have wrestled my fingers into submission NOT to post on Obama’s fatuous, silly, false moral equivalence speech at the prayer breakfast. Who really pays attention to those speeches? At least, that’s my rationalization. Obama makes it so hard to keep it balanced here.

        To me, the speech’s significance is that it convinced me that the guy just isn’t that bright. It’s a really dumb speech that is so intellectually sloppy and historically obtuse that it strikes me as the kind of egotistic posturing that only someone who has been given a pass through schools he wasn’t qualified for and spared the kind of vigorous criticism that develops hardy intellectual skill by well-meaning social justice activists can mistake for a serious observation.

        The press has continued the pattern for Obama, and after three decades of conditioning, he’s now that most obnoxious of all maladroits, the guy who genuinely believes he’s smarter than everyone else but is really just mediocre. It’s tragic. And for the welfare of a nation to be placed in the hands of someone with that malady is more than tragic…it’s catastrophic.

  6. I am of the camp of put it out there and if people want to see it they can, otherwise they do not have to go look.

    But I do not believe that a decision to show or to not show the video would encourage or discourage bad people either. Bad people will be bad because they are bad.

  7. Put it out there, in high resolution graphics and high sound quality. I want people to hear the sound of a knife sawing the gristle of the trachea and spinal cord, the grunts and gurgling, the sight of blood spurting from carotid arteries, the twitching of a body contorted in agony and mortal terror, and to almost smell the coppery smell of fresh-drawn blood. Too many jackasses out there, who seemed to have forgotten all too soon the sight of burning people jumping to their deaths from the twin towers, or the USS Cole, or others too numerous to list They seem to have forgotten the bestial nature of these cockroaches, or suffer from the delusion that they think like us, and can somehow be reasoned with At the very least, we owe it to the victims to have the courage to witness their ordeal. As far as I’m concerned, it would be unethical to NOT watch this in its entirety.

    • If they had the courage to suffer such a horrible death, the least we can do is muster the courage to bear witness to their sacrifice; in the hope that maybe it will inspire the outrage that won’t dissipate with the next Kim Karshadian tit-job.

  8. I have to admit; I could drop these ISIS people, feet-first, into a dull wood chipper all day and night, with the occasional bathroom break, until every last one of them was hog slop. I’d sleep like a baby afterwards. I’d only stop to re-fuel.

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