Was the removal of James Foley’s beheading from Twitter ethically justified?
In media ethics, there are few questions that pop up instantly. How can we minimize the harm? How can we maximize the positive outcome? Who gets harmed? Who benefits and for what price? And who decides what is violence and when it can or cannot be shown?
The removal of James Foley’s beheading from Twitter is a controversial case. Was it ethically justified or not? Was the senior member at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies James Lewis right when he said that “you shouldn’t suppress the facts, but you can suppress the image”? Or was his fellow the Ethics and Human Behavior professor at George Washington University Walter Reich right when he argued that “the reasons not to show it are good; (but) the educational value of showing it is greater”? (2014. Reich, W. The Washington Post. Show the James Foley beheading video.)
To evaluate and take a decision we must think of the consequences. By removing James Foley’s beheading video only one main interest was considered: his family’s, despite the fact that there are other sides involved such as the public and social media. Upon their request, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo forbid anyone from posting it.
However, those whose interests should be given priority to are the public. By showing them the atrocities of the Islamic State, Twitter would be first of all practicing its right as a free medium whose terms and conditions do not state the measures that were taken during this case.
Here, the interest of Twitter as well as the public are harmed. Twitter deprived itself its main right and role: expose, inform, and raise awareness. As for the public, according to Ward (2011. Ward. What is Ethics’ in Ethics and the Media, Cambridge University Press.), “ethics like law aims to be […] a safeguard against […] ignorance.” But isn’t retrieving the video that portrays the horrific acts of terrorism a form of censorship to keep the audience ignorant? The only side that is benefiting is the family.
Tom Doran tweeted “Don’t share the video. Don’t share the pictures. Don’t work for ISIS.” The following is a logical fallacy, known as slippery slope. How is sharing the video equivalent to working for terrorists?
According to the consequential theory, best known from John Stewart Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism, what is ethical is what builds on the principle of “greatest happiness,” even if the actions involved are unethical.
Following this ethical theory, I strongly believe that Twitter’s decision is not justified. The family’s concern is surely respected, but shouldn’t stop social media from practicing its job, based on rationality, no matter how emotional the issue is.
“Show, don’t tell,” is one of the first rules we learn in the world of media, whether it is with words or visuals. However, no word would be able to portray Foley’s pain more than the video. Twitter should’ve showed.
Plus, let’s not forget that not a single video plays alone. If someone feels offended by or bothered by the video, they can simply ignore it. You cannot stop the world from witnessing an event just because it bothers you. The media should be free not only as a whole, but also in what is has to offer.
As for ISIS, not playing their video does not mean taking away their power. They are terrorists, not film directors.
Isn’t it ironic how James Foley was a photojournalist himself, but his captured death was censored? We have the right, as an audience to be aware of what is happening around the world. We have the right to mourn James Foley and any other victim the way we want to. We have the right because ethically speaking, it is for greater goodness. We have the right because rationally speaking, shutting the video down won’t bring Foley back to his family and won’t harm his memory in any way; A lifetime of memories cannot be shuttered by 5 minutes of being a victim.
Reich, W. (2014, August 29). Show the James Foley beheading video. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/08/29/why-facebook-and-youtube-should-show-the-james-foley-beheading-video/
Ward (2011) ‘What is Ethics’ in Ethics and the Media, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 9–16;
Ward (2011) ‘What is Ethics’ in Ethics and the Media, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 38.