How Much Is Too Much?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

How Much Is Too Much?   

Journalists debate merit of using graphic Daniel Pearl murder images

By Doug Brown
Doug Brown is a writer in Baltimore.     


It's either a breach of ethics, an example of bad taste or a journalistic act of courage.

That's the range of views swirling around the use by both CBS News and the alternative-weekly newspaper the Boston Phoenix of a videotape showing the grisly murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, killed by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan in February.

CBS first aired pieces of the videotape in May. The network blended non-gory segments from it into a story exploring how the footage is being used as propaganda in Muslim countries. In June, the Boston Phoenix posted on its Web site (www.bostonphoenix.com) a link to an unedited version of the video, which briefly shows Pearl's neck being cut with a knife as well as images of his severed head in someone's hand. The Phoenix also printed still photos from the video in the paper.

CBS' decision to use the tape kicked up controversy in journalism circles, with some accusing the network of sensationalism. Government officials asked CBS not to broadcast it, saying that Pearl's family was opposed to the footage airing nationwide.

CBS spokeswoman Andie Silvers says the network felt that showing select pieces of the tape was "very important." The network's broadcast "wasn't about Pearl, it was about propaganda and what's out there," she says. "We thought it was important as responsible journalists to show the American people what is being put out there and the effect it is having on the Arab world." The network has "great sympathy" for the Pearl family, she says.

The Boston Phoenix's link to the entire videotape provoked much more criticism. Phoenix Publisher Stephen Mindich says he posted the link on Friday, May 31. By the following Friday, people who went to the Phoenix Web site were greeted by a page dominated by the video controversy, complete with five features (the link to the video, an editorial by Mindich, reader response and so on) and this note: "Due to increased traffic on our Web site, we created this page as a temporary solution to our overloaded bandwidth."

Criticism came fast and furious. Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and a former Detroit News editor and publisher, told the Boston Herald the pictures weren't newsworthy. "They are not breaking any new ground with the story by publishing the photos now," Giles said. "You have to suspect they are trying to draw attention to their newspaper."

In the same Herald report Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers said, "I see no social utility in the depiction of what we already know happened to Daniel Pearl." And Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at the University of California, San Diego, told the Chicago Tribune, "Whether this serves the cause of freedom or terrorism more, I have no idea."

Mindich says he followed the Pearl kidnapping, but his interest in the case faded until he was e-mailed a link to the video by a colleague. An Internet service provider in Virginia called ProHosters was hosting the link.

Mindich says he was so moved by the video that within three hours he had the Phoenix Web site linking to it. Shortly after that he decided to publish the stills from the video--including an image of Pearl's severed head--in the Phoenix.

"I was unequivocally convinced that it needed to be distributed and seen by as many American citizens as possible to understand and to be able to comprehend on a very one-to-one personal level what is going on out there in the world of radical Muslim actions and terrorism and murder, and what is being taught that is manifesting itself in things as massive as the World Trade Center towers and the suicide bombings and murders like Danny Pearl," he says. "Americans have an extraordinary ability to identify with unique individuals to represent us all.... Danny Pearl is everybody's husband, brother, child. This brings it home on a very human, very visual level that reading a paper doesn't."

Mindich excoriated the FBI, the government and the media for trying to suppress the videotape, not being outraged by it, and not pursuing it and broadcasting it. "These are all additional questions and issues that are raised by the deadly silence that existed around this whole issue," he says.

Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says that when CBS aired portions of the videotape, it did the public a service by editing out the gruesome segments. And he points out that CBS used the footage only in the context of a story about Muslim fundamentalism and propaganda. But in the case of the Boston Phoenix, Steele sees "no legitimate journalistic purpose in the decision they made to publish these horrific pictures."

"What the Phoenix has done is to my mind not only journalistically unwarranted but very disrespectful to the family," he says. "As a newspaper publisher or editor, you shouldn't let your own emotional rage or strong personal beliefs drive your decision making, and I believe that is what happened here. I don't see a journalistic imperative that overrides harm that comes from showing such an image, particularly to the family."

Nonsense, says California State University, Fullerton professor Paul Lester, who specializes in photojournalism ethics. "There are awful things that happen in the world, and I don't believe that people should be prevented from seeing them," he says. "Awful acts need to be shown, and we need to see as humans what other humans are capable of in this world. Visual images show this much more powerfully than words can ever do."

Lester, who used to work at New Orleans' Times-Picayune as a photojournalist, says the standard behind whether the media should use horrific imagery is, simply, newsworthiness. "When something is big enough and has enough public interest, I think you should show it," he says, adding that disturbing images that rise to this level must be in context and not presented raw, without commentary. "That's what journalists should do--explain," he says. "What is propaganda? It would be irresponsible to just show it without any context whatsoever."

David Poland, an entertainment reporter who runs a popular Hollywood Web site called The Hot Button (www.thehotbutton.com), championed the Phoenix's link to the video, but says he'd be shocked if it ever appeared anywhere beyond the Internet.

Poland, who watched the video through the Phoenix link, says it stands up as an important historical document. Other historical documents happen to be gruesome, like film of John F. Kennedy's assassination or of corpses stacked up at concentration camps. Journalists should not withhold such material, he says, describing the mainstream media's handling of the Pearl video issue as "paternalistic."

"I think there is a sense of, 'We can handle it, but the public can't handle it,' " he says. "I agree there are some things that have no journalistic value, but in this case I can't imagine anybody looking at this and not walking away with a new and a strong perspective."

He also lambastes the argument that the video should be kept from the public out of respect for the Pearl family. "In what other piece of journalism do you look at the feelings of the family first?" he says. "It's the most absurd argument I've ever heard. It's like, 'Let's not cover the Enron scandal because it will hurt Ken Lay's family.' "

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