Images of War

 

By Casey Bukro

James Foley was an American photojournalist who captured the gruesome images of savage warfare, until he became one of those images himself.

Foley, 40, dressed in prisoner orange with a shaved head, is seen kneeling next to a masked, black-clad man holding a knife. Kidnapped in Syria almost two years ago, Foley seems to grimace as the masked man clutches his shirt from behind.

A video posted on YouTube, then taken down, reportedly shows Foley decapitated, his bloody head detached from his body and resting on his back. Two U.S. officials said they believe the video is authentic.

Journalistically, one of the issues in reporting on Foley is whether the grim photo, which seems to show the journalist in the last moments of his life, should have been published.

The New York Post and the New York Daily News gave the photo front-page exposure, causing Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip to ask if the tabloids had gone “too far by printing gruesome images of James Foley’s execution.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages sensitivity in the use of photographs involving those caught up by tragedy or grief, and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

For tabloids, that can be a challenge. The rule seems to be the more shocking, the better, and big images are best

This is not the first time the New York Post is seen as going “too far.” On Dec. 4, 2012, it published a cover photo of a man desperately trying to climb up on the platform of the New York City subway after a panhandler allegedly pushed him onto the tracks.

The man in the photo is moments from death as he looks at the train bearing down on him.

The photo appeared with the words, “this man is about to die,” and “doomed.” It caused outrage among those who thought it was heartless to publish such a photo. Some thought the photographer should have helped the doomed man, instead of taking his picture.

Shock value has always been a tool of the trade for tabloid journalism, and, to some extent its younger media relative, online journalism.

What does it mean these days to “go too far”? Is that idea passé?

There was a time when the personal lives of American presidents were off limits. Clearly, rules change.

What do you think?  Is shock value just a hangover from tabloid journalism and outmoded, or justified at a time when movies and television trade in sex and sensationalism? Are we just old-fashioned when we cringe from photos of men about to die?

Journalists from three organizations, including SPJ, are pondering writing or rewriting codes of ethics. What should they say about shock value in the news?

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