Opinion: James Foley’s death shows that graphic, unregulated footage is just a click away

YESTERDAY A VIDEO emerged from a social media account associated with the militant Islamic State group (formerly known as ISIS) of the beheading of James Foley, an American photojournalist who disappeared in northwestern Syria in November 2012.

Moments before his execution, Foley recited the following statement:

I call on my friends, family, and loved ones to rise up against my real killers, the US government, for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacency and criminality. My message to my beloved parents. Save me some dignity and don’t accept any meagre compensation for my death from the same people who effectively hit the last nail in my coffin from their recent aerial campaign in Iraq.

Seconds later James Foley was dead. The footage showing his decapitated head lying next to his body.

Today, The New York Post shocked the world by publishing the image of Foley, with a knife to his throat, moments before he was executed. But why were we shocked? In what can only be described as a transformative time for journalism, the digital age has introduced the concept of news content in its rawest, purest form. Unregulated, unadulterated, uncompromising footage from all over the world is directly accessible with the click of a button. Often, the first report is now filed by a bystander using their phone, direct to the entire world via YouTube.

Ethics, morality and accountability

The emergence of user-generated content (UGC) means the audience can choose between receiving filtered, professionally packaged news from tried and trusted news organisations or raw, unedited accounts from activists and NGOs on the scene.

Both offer a detailed account of events, yet the arguably purer form of reporting comes from UGC. Despite this, the more graphic UGC still fails to make it onto international broadcasters’ rundowns.

It’s understandable; UGC raises many questions. Ethics, morality and accountability all have to be considered, and important questions of verification remain. Is this real? Can my source be trusted?

The biggest question UGC poses, however, concerns the audience. Are the general public ready for the stark reality of raw, amateur content — often from war zones — to be part of their mainstream media publications and broadcasts?

Minute by minute, activists in conflicts like Gaza and the Ukraine capture footage of violent events, often containing distressing scenes of serious injury, fatalities and destruction.

Violence happens everywhere

Graphic and violent content is not limited to Middle Eastern events. Dramatic, gruesome events occur everywhere — and there are more lenses capturing it than ever before. So are the audience becoming more attuned to this raw, uncensored content?

A recent survey into the broadcasting and publication of graphic content by the media organisation, Al-Jazeera, found that nine out of 10 users of the organisations English language website supported the broadcasting of graphic visuals.

The survey also found that those who turned to the Qatar-based media outlets news website for visual information not found in western media, were from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia.

Yet, many mainstream media broadcasters and publishers remain unwilling to break some social norms, perhaps due to the potential legal liability they may face from litigants claiming to have suffered psychological trauma from viewing some of the more graphic UGC, leaving the footage to be viewed on social platforms, where they believe it belongs.

There, it amasses millions of views on a daily basis, further proving there is an audience willing to watch it, presumably to understand the depicted events more clearly.

A first-person perspective

The majority of us were not standing in the conflict of Gaza in recent times, the sound of airstrikes ringing in our ears. Nor were we at the crash site of MH17, where 298 people lost their lives. But, via YouTube, we could be there minutes later, watching from a first-person perspective, seeing what the witnesses saw, observing the events as they unfolded.

UGC continues to offer the media audience a first-hand account of reality. The choice remains with audience: to decide what is and is not real news for them.

Derek Bowler is a journalist at social media news agency Storyful. Follow him on Twitter @BowlerDerek

Originally published on August 20 2014 at www.thejournal.ie.

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