An ethical dilemma

Wow, it has been far too long since the last posting. This semester has been insane. My latest ‘excuse’ is Liberty Tree Week@Berry, a week of events we’ve planned for Berry here in Communication. It’s swallowed every discretionary moment, and much more. But it will be so worth it.

To our purpose: An ethical dilemma for my class of cross-platform content editors and producers. First, the scenario:

To hyperlink or not to hyperlink, that is the question

You are deciding for the AJC (& Web site), WSB TV (& Web site) or CNN (& Web site). Your audience: AJC – the Southeast; WSB TV – Georgia; CNN – the nation.

What: A new prime minister of Iraq has just been named, a Shiite who had been an outspoken critic of Saddam Hussein and had lived in exile before the American invasion of 2003.

Shortly after taking office in April 2009, he is kidnapped, along with five American journalists, by a rival Sunni faction. Several hours later, the kidnappers say they have hanged the prime minister to protest the execution of Hussein. The kidnappers don’t bother with cell phone video; they provide professional-looking video that shows the prime minister dropping through the platform. The video shows his head snapping off and his body, and head, falling to the floor.

The kidnappers have posted the video on their Web site, and American officials have independently confirmed that it shows what it says it does: the decapitation of the Iraqi official. But American officials are asking American news organizations not to link to the video because, they claim, doing so will help the kidnappers achieve their ends.

No American news site has linked to the site yet, but we, the editors at the AJC, are eager to do so. We in the newsroom meet to discuss our coverage. Our key questions: Will we include a link to the hanging video and, therefore, the kidnappers’ Web site, or not? Controversy is sure to follow whatever decision we make, so the second question: How will we explain our decision?

Remember: We are to maximize the truth, minimize harm and serve the public interest. These are our journalistic imperatives. And we are to conceive of ethical decision-making as a process. It’s not about whether you are a good, moral person or not.

So, for Monday, post a few sentences identifying your decision and justifying and explaining it. Nothing too lengthy.

To help you:

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16 Responses to An ethical dilemma

  1. Tauna Aspley says:

    As the AJC, I would propose that the link should not be posted on our Web site. As the Atlanta newspaper, we want to focus solely on the news. The story is a way we can inform readers, not through a video. We also want to minimize harm, and showing the video would give more power to the kidnappers.

    If we want to focus on the five journalists still with the kidnappers, we should not distract our readers by displaying the video. Readers might also be offended if we did post the video or a link to the video.

  2. I don’t understand, Tauna. The execution video is the very essence of news, with many if not most of the news values we look for. It’s also graphic and propagandistic, which is where of course we run into difficulty.

    I’m not quibbling with your decision, but am confused by the “As the Atlanta newspaper, we want to focus solely on the news” statement. I also don’t see how showing the video would “distract” readers/viewers. Linking to or showing the video wouldn’t necessarily de-emphasize a story on the fate of the American journalists.

    So I’m clear here on what you aren’t going to do. I’m a bit fuzzy on what in fact you do plan to do.

  3. Brittany Howes says:

    WSB TV
    As a local broadcast station I would not play the video during the newscast, nor link the video on the Web site. Because WSB is a broadcast station it is an unbidden form of media and reaches all local audiences. Therefore, it answers to stricter regulations unlike cable which people pay for (bidden). Showing that type of footage would be very graphic and traumatic for some audiences. Our group proposed showing still shots of the hanging while having a Reporter voice-over describe the story. We are maximizing truth by telling the whole story, and minimizing harm by protecting our broadcast audience.

  4. Joseph Palmer says:

    AJC

    We could show pictures of the prime minister and five journalists with our article in the paper. I think we should talk about what happened in the video but don’t go into the gory details. Instead add something to the print that links the reader to the website and on the Web site have the article with the pictures but also a link to the video. However, I think we should take the video off of the terrorists site and put it on our AJC site and add a precaution to the link waring of the graphic content. This would keep readers from having to go to their Web site to view it.

  5. Sourosh Amani says:

    WSB TV:
    As a group we decided that we want to have some still images of the hanging while the anchor or somebody else explains the story while the pictures are being shown. This way we still will have the impact of the story and wont have to show a gruesome video. I personally would state the link of the kidnappers Web site and their video on the WSB TV Web site. I think that a news agency should provide the truth and all of the information that they have to their audience.

  6. Noelle Brooks says:

    CNN:

    Within our group, we decided that we should should everything leading up to the actual hanging on TV. The group felt that in this way, the viewers could still get the impact, and we would still be doing our job as public informants. We were most concerned about families seeing such gruesome images on T.V. and felt that showing most of the video without the hanging would work better on television. A link to the full video on the website would be better, since this is optional.

    I personally was a little concerned about the organization becoming so bogged down in being pc, that we might loose the purpose or the essence of the story in general. I emphasized that if we only show parts on T.V., we should explain why, and make it clear why this hanging is important, and perhaps have interviews with the journalists involves. In this way, what makes this story newsworthy can still be conveyed without showing gruesome images. I feel like what we chose can work, as long as we don’t let what’s really important about this story get lost. I just wonder if this sort of reporting will have as powerful an impact as the whole video itself?

  7. Zach Claxton says:

    I would personally choose not to provide a link to the video nor would I grab and post the video on the AJC website. While the prime minister’s kidnapping and subsequent death is sad I do not feel that it warrants placement on the website. Especially at a time when five Americans are being held by the same group. I think that posting or linking the video has the possibility to lead to hysteria among the public. If those who killed the prime minister and kidnapped the hostages are savvy enough to provide a professional video of an execution then we have to assume that they are able to monitor American news. My fear is that when they see American’s reaction to the video of the prime minister then they might decide they can get even a bigger reaction by killing an American this time.

    I also think that none of us would want to see a video posted on the internet of one of our family members being executed, so why would we subject the prime minister’s family to that? I would write the story and say that the prime minister was executed but leave out the specifics of heads rolling off and things like that. We could state who the organization is and that they produced a video and then if someone wanted to find the video they could do so on their own. We should not be a party to making content like that easily accessible. I would say we should sit on the video until the fate of the five Americans is resolved and then revisit the idea of posting the view at that time. I think the news job is to tell the news and tell what people need to know. We can do that without the video. I thinking posting the video pose a greater threat of harm to the families and the public in general.

  8. Amelia Heine says:

    AJC

    I propose that we focus our article on the kidnapped five journalists and not focus on the prime minister. As for the video, I believe that it would be in our reader’s best interest if we did not provide a link to the site. Our readers can search for the video and find it on the Web if they want to watch it, but since our story is focusing on the five journalists, the video is not necessary.

  9. Anna Smith says:

    CNN:

    I think the video is important to show because CNN is world news and the people need to know what is happening. I think the video should be viewed on television as well as online. The video on the television should show up to the hanging, including preparation of the hanging with platform and rope, etc. I feel that the actual hanging should not be seen since it is more graphic, but the video should be linked online, so people have the option to view the whole video.

  10. Jessica Gilker says:

    CNN
    I believe we should create two different news package- one for online and one for TV. On the TV, the video should show everything leading up to the hanging. It will allow viewers to get a feeling of the situation and still create an impact. If the hanging was shown on TV, the viewer would not necessary have been given the choice to see it.
    The online package could have both a shorten version and a whole version of the hanging. The videos should be titled clearly and correctly, to inform the viewers on what they are about the see. But it must be insured that the whole focus is not just on the hanging. The goal should remain to inform the public, making sure cover the facts on journalists also involved in the situation, not covering just one event in the situation.

  11. April Gunn says:

    There are a few key issues here that make the decision-making process difficult. One is the dignity of the man who was hanged. By linking to that video, we will have facilitated the spread of footage of his gruesome death at the hands of terrorists. Some might also argue that we have helped them in their goal, especially if their goal was to send a message.

    Another issue is our responsibility, as a news organization, to “seek the truth, and report it.” To that end, omitting the video is omitting truth. Of course, it is also important to note that the video, as far as we know, was not made by a journalist whose goal was to inform, but by terrorists, whose goal was to protest the execution of Saddam Hussein.

    It is important, also, to consider the audience. To some people, the fact that the new prime minister of Iraq was hanged is not as important as the fact that five American journalists have been kidnapped. On the other hand, there have been and are American soldiers in Iraq, making the country’s political atmosphere a matter of importance for American citizens. From that point of view, the prime minister’s death must be assigned at least equal importance with the kidnapped journalists.

    With all these things in mind, I would not link to the video, for the following reasons:
    1) The nature of the video is not journalistic, but terroristic. Therefore, linking to the video does not help to inform the public of crucial details, but instead serves as free advertising for a terrorist website.

    2) On the nightly news, dead or mutilated bodies are not shown as a matter of tact and respect for the dead. This practice is not considered a watering-down of the truth because the information is still given to the public. With this in mind, I feel it would be better to accurately report the facts, perhaps with a still photo of the prime minister, without linking to the video of his graphically violent death.

    Within this course of action it is important that the story be reported thoroughly and accurately. It might be possible to edit the end of the video out and display our edited version, with a disclaimer stating the nature of the video and explaining that content was edited out, on our own website. In this way, we provide the public with the information they need and visual supports for that information, without providing traffic to terrorist websites or sacrificing the dignity of the victim.

  12. Tauna Aspley says:

    Let me clarify a little more on what I propose the AJC should do. I think that we should definitely talk about and describe the video in our article, because that is the news. We could even include a photograph from the video, but I would be hesitant about extracting a photograph from their video. If people wanted to see the video, they could search for it on their own.

  13. Gina Ciliberto says:

    CNN

    I think the coverage of this event should be shared both online and on television, obviously to reach people who may use the internet as their source of news rather than tv. However, when reporting about the event on television I believe we should not show the actual hanging.I think we should show the place where the hanging occured, but be careful as to go into too much visual footage that may start to look too gruesome. We do not know who is watching and therefore, the audience has no choice in what they view. This would be upsetting for the families of the journalists and some regular citizens may find this disturbing and inapropriate. Not to mention the impact the footage would have on a child who happens to see this on tv instead of cartoon network.
    Online we can post a video of the hanging with the story, however label the video with a clear warning of what exactly the video is going to show. Those who do not want to see it, do not have to watch it. This way we are minimalizing harm to those who do not wish to see this, while still providing the full impact and truth to our audience.

  14. Kyler says:

    Channel 2 Action News:

    I would most definitely not broadcast the execution video during a newscast. There are too many risk factors here. For one, once something is broadcast, the viewer has no real choice whether or not he or she sees the video, it’s simply put out there for the audience to take in involuntarily. Given that there are children watching broadcast news, that kind of graphic content would be upsetting.

    However, I would definitely link to the video on the Web site. Given that our audience is local, it is unlikely that we would draw much national attention by linking to the video, thereby keeping a low profile and not endangering the lives of the captive journalists. The video is something that should be able to be seen by a selective audience, one that voluntarily chooses to view the content. On the Web, this is more easily accomplished.

  15. Christine Clolinger says:

    WSB TV
    The video was originally filmed with the intent to cause fear and broadcast a message of terror, not to deliver news. Although the subject of the film is newsworthy, it does not necessarily belong in the news in its entirety. As Georgia’s TV news source, we decided to publish key still shots of the film, such as Prime Minister walking up to the noose and/or a picture of him with the noose around his neck. The pictures broacast on the airwaves, due to its unbidden nature, would not show him in the process of dying or dead. The pictures that we would publish on our website may be slighly more graphic, such as a picture of his body on the floor but only to the effect that it does not show the snapped off head. The news anchor would warn viewrs of the traumatic content about to play and the link to the pictures online would have a warning label.
    We believed the pictures would sufficiently deliver the message of the story without causing unnecessary harm. The pictures of a man walking to his death on TV and of his cadaver online would impact the audience enough without them having to actually watch him die. The point of news is to deliver facts, not to play on people’s emotions, to get a point across. We believed the video would greatly upset the adult audienence and traumatize the children who would inevitably see the footage. Strong emotions would not necessarily help an audience to make informed decisions about their life and the world around them. In fact, strong emotions would most likely hinder the audience from doing so. Facts would. In addition, our decision would maintain respect the family of the five kidnapped journalists and the memory of the deceased Prime Minisister without loosing any news content.
    The American official’s desires were not a factor in our decision because it is important to maintain our independence as journalists. The video is simply too graphic.

  16. Laura Diepenbrock says:

    I would not broadcast an execution video on live TV under any circumstances. I see this creating concerns from parents because of the amount of children that watch TV on a regular basis. By broadcasting such graphic material so freely, children could be exposed too easily to violence.

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