The Careful Calculations Behind Covering ISIS Execution Videos
James Foley tribute page
Credit: Daily Herald
September 12, 2014

My phone beeped with a news alert from the Associated Press as I was getting into the car at a grocery store near my house in Chicago. American journalist James Foley had been beheaded. My heart pounded with the news, and I chirped something over my shoulder to my toddler, something fake, high-pitched and sing-song, trying to calm myself, trying not to imagine.

I did not know Foley, though I had a Twitter exchange with him right before he was captured. But I have known the terror of trying to avoid his outcome. As a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post in Iraq, this is what we feared most, being kidnapped and beheaded. Shortly after I arrived in Iraq in 2004 to start on my first long assignment, American Nicholas Berg had just been kidnapped and beheaded. It was captured on video. A few weeks later, I survived a kidnapping attempt outside of Abu Ghraib prison, a terrifying ordeal that became most real when I covered the Battle of Fallujah five months later and saw, alongside the U.S. Army, the very rooms where captives were tortured and executed. That could have been my fate.

After I saw the AP alert and quickly read the story, I raced home to check in with my friends, the correspondents who knew Foley, the members of my tribe. I got pulled over on the way by Chicago police for making a hasty illegal turn. I apologized but did not explain.

I have not personally watched the videos or viewed images of Foley and Steven Sotloff before their executions, giving nothing more than a passing glance at thumbnails that accompany stories I’ve read mostly on my mobile device, purposefully read there and not on my computer because any photographs will be small.

A terrorist group makes a video after a murdering a journalist and sends it out through social media to be seen and to be shared. Are we complicit if we go along?

In a social media class I teach at Columbia College Chicago, I went with my students to visit Yahoo’s Flickr website on Tuesday, looking for images of Foley and Sotloff that we could use for a Storify we were building about the publication of the videos. As I was scrolling through, I came across a thumbnail of Sotloff’s severed head on his body. With the website projected on a large TV screen in the classroom, I gasped at the discovery and quickly logged off the site, my hands slightly shaking. I went back later, and alone, to find out who had posted it, and the picture had been removed.

That day the Foley video was released, I remembered a detail I had long forgotten. I used to watch beheading videos in the Post’s Baghdad bureau to write about them. The early beheading videos were different than these, less sophisticated but in ways more gruesome. They showed the killings. They had audio. You heard every second. EVERY. SOUND. I once knew exactly how long it took a man to die from the moment the knife hit his neck. It took me a decade to forget. And then Foley was murdered, and I remembered.

In her newsroom at the Daily Herald, Chicago’s largest suburban newspaper, Teresa Schmedding learned that Sotloff had been murdered from a CNN news alert on her phone. She walked over and quickly ducked in to relay the news to the top editor. Islamic militants had released a second execution video of an American journalist.

Schmedding, the deputy managing editor for digital operations for the Daily Herald Media Group, wanted to double-check that the decision would be the same one made two weeks earlier when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, released its first video of the beheading of Foley. It was. The Daily Herald editors would not publish any images from the videos of Foley or Sotloff, would not share with its readers what has become an iconic image from the footage of their murders: the two journalists, in separate videos, on their knees in the desert in an orange jumpsuit, a masked executioner in black holding a knife as he talks to the camera.

“The question, of course, is how do you take a story like this and make it real to people,” Schmedding said. “Clearly it’s going to be shocking and trigger emotions. It also feeds into what the people want who are killing journalists. So that’s the problem. That’s the big issue.”

Indeed, it is an issue not only for news organizations but also for social media companies and consumers of news in a modern age of distribution. Do you publish or not? Do you look or not? For many, the very production of the videos is at the heart of it. A terrorist group makes a video after a murdering a journalist and sends it out through social media to be seen and to be shared. Are we complicit if we go along?

The two ISIS videos, as described by journalists who have watched them, are slick productions. Released through social media, they do not show the actual beheadings, the moment the men are killed. In each, a masked executioner next to the reporter delivers a message to the United States that the journalists are paying for missile strikes on ISIS in Iraq. Foley and Sotloff are seen reading from scripts in each video. The executioner puts a knife to their necks before the screen goes dark, as David Carr describes in his New York Times column on Sept. 7. When the videos resume, the scene cuts to their bodies, their severed heads resting on their chests.

Although the Daily Herald did not share any images from the videos, many news organizations did.

“Picture editors for most organizations used a frame grab,” said Kenneth Irby, founder of Poynter’s photojournalism program and senior faculty at the leadership and training school. “It’s one of the more effective alternatives without being gory or gruesome. It reflects the reality that this is an evocative event without going further.”

The question of whether to broadcast or publish graphic images or footage is hardly a new conversation for journalists. The death of Muammer Gaddafi captured on a cell phone. The mutilated bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah. The iconic image from Vietnam of a suspected Viet Cong guerilla being shot in the head. “So much of this feels like new territory, feeling our way, and in other ways it feels very familiar,” said Philip Bennett, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University and a former managing editor for Frontline and the Washington Post.

What’s familiar: the process (and there is careful one at most news organizations) for deciding whether to publish a violent act.

What’s new: the image, in this case, a video, was produced for the media, not by the media. This is different from when a news photographer captures images from a fire that shows a dead body. Or when a photographer in Afghanistan takes a picture after a bomb blast that shows severed limbs. For the most part, Americans never see the most disturbing images of war or natural disasters.

What’s familiar: the consideration whether such images will offend or disturb readers and viewers, whether they advance the story or simply titillate.

What’s new: years ago if the Daily Herald decided not to publish a image in its news pages, its readers may never have seen it. Now, without too much digging on the Internet, anyone can find it. YouTube and Twitter removed the beheading videos when they were posted or shared, and Twitter announced it was suspending the accounts of its users who had done so. But it’s easy to find the images of the decapitated journalists, photos of their last moments.

“…it’s not for us to say to CNN viewers you’re not allowed to see that.”
— Tony Maddox, executive VP, ME, CNN International

CNN showed parts of the ISIS videos of Foley and Sotloff online and on broadcast. (It also has showed other executions by ISIS when the victims have not been Americans). The Huffington Post showed frames from the video leading up to the execution. NPR also showed photos of the journalists before the execution, their heads shaved and a lapel microphone attached to their orange jumpsuits.

“As news organizations, our natural inclination is to report the news and try to accompany our stories on radio, online, with whatever materials are appropriate for what happened,” said Mark Memmott, supervising senior editor for standards and practices at NPR. “In this case, we felt words could accomplish that and didn’t need to go the extra step to show you images that were disturbing.”

Ultimately, publishing the most graphic moments of the video “wasn’t going to add fundamentally to our users’ understanding of what happened,” he said.

On its website, the only audio to which NPR linked was from its own on-air reports. On air, it chose audio from the first killing to only broadcast enough of the killer’s voice to let people understand that he seemed to have a British accent, Memmott said. “We didn’t air so much that we would be broadcasting his whole message, just enough that you would get a sense of what he sounded like,” he said.

Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing editor of CNN International, said editors and news managers can’t “overthink” the decision to publish. “We try to broadcast information that’s pertinent to the act of barbarism, but as distasteful as it is, one cannot get away from the fact that these videos will drive the debate,” he said. “They will impact the policy. And it’s not for us to say to CNN viewers you’re not allowed to see that.”

Whitney Snyder, executive news editor for the Huffington Post, watched both videos. Asked for his reaction, Snyder sighed and then paused before answering. “For kind of obvious reasons, these two murders have been especially prominent in American media,” Snyder said. “Up until the recent attempts at closing down their Twitter accounts, I followed a decent number of Islamic State Twitter accounts, and obviously some graphic photos came from there. I don’t think anyone needs to see these images of the actual violence being committed.”

At the venerable Associated Press, news managers put the videos (and frame grabs from them) through standard criteria, said Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography. First, is the image authentic? Is it newsworthy? Does it break new ground or tell us something we didn’t previously know?

“Then if we’re satisfied by those criteria we seek to convey the event without gratuitous and grisliness,” he said. “If militants kill a hostage, we might show the killer wielding a knife but not the actual start of the beheading. Every case is a judgment call. We take each case on its own level.”

In this case, AP used a photograph of Foley kneeling. You can’t see his knees. Next to him is the masked militant, but he does not have his knife drawn. It was a single photograph, and Santiago said AP restricted access so the photo did not publish automatically or link to a story, which is a feature for some of its clients who publish AP content. For Sotloff, AP used a closer up picture of him. In that frame, you see the knife in the corner of the picture but not the militant’s head. At the end of the Foley video, the militants showed Sotloff, indicating he would be executed next, and AP ran a frame grab of that.

“We are trying to navigate between not trying to sanitize the horror on the one hand and not becoming an amplifier or force multiplier for radical groups engaging in what might be called violence pornography,” Santiago said.

“It was enough just to see him moments before he was being killed and the horror of that stays with me forever. I can’t get the image out of my mind.”
— Jon Lee Anderson

Some news organizations opted to describe the videos in detail but not show images from them, which can raise similar issues as publishing the photographs, he said.

“There is no real difference in my mind between a detailed description of that scene and showing it in a picture,” Santiago said. “One of the things we talked about here is that while we might describe that scene, we wouldn’t describe it in tremendous detail. We treat words and photograph the same.”

For many foreign correspondents, the beheadings of our colleagues has been personal, and it’s been uncomfortable because as journalists, we would rather cover the story than be the story. That’s one of the reasons I was reluctant to write this piece at all. It could have been me. But it was not me. It was Jim. It was Steve.

A few days ago, I talked to Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School. He’d heard from other journalists, too, though I was calling him specifically to interview him for this story. My colleagues were reaching out because they were scared and sad and angry, too, Shapiro said.

The videos have been “very evocative for journalists not only because of the specific threat of kidnap but because we’ve lost so many colleagues in the last decade,” he said. “I had more than one person get in touch who said in the last 10 years I’ve lost, five, six, 10 colleagues. For the tight knit network of people who have been covering the Mid East for many years it’s brought up a lot of business just beyond kidnapping.”

But something else resonated with him from those conversations with journalists, Shapiro said.

“What has struck me is how often people have responded by saying that we have to keep covering the story, to provide a greater degree of protection and avoid more kidnapping,” he said. “People are approaching it as journalists often do, not just with stress but with commitment. I’ve been quite moved by that.”

On Sept. 7, five days after the Sotloff video was released, Jon Lee Anderson, a veteran war correspondent for the New Yorker who had written about Foley after he was murdered, posted on Facebook that he was going to withdraw from social media, starting with Facebook and then Twitter.

“This is mostly precipitated by a feeling of growing horror and disgust at the social media’s pandering to Internet-enabled performance terrorism (a la ISIS), which I have written about recently, a phenomenon that disturbs me greatly,“ Anderson wrote. He simultaneously changed his Facebook profile photo to a white square and his cover photo to a black rectangle.

Jon Lee Anderson Facebook page

Facebook page of Jon Lee Anderson

I reached out to Anderson to talk to him about his decision because I was interested in his thought process and I wanted to try to explain it to my students. I teach social media and journalism. I teach my students how to use social media to report. Like most journalism schools, we have infused social media reporting into nearly all of our classes, a recognition of its importance to covering news. I show examples in class of how I used Twitter to cover Arab Spring. We discuss the limitations, the ethics, best practices. Anderson, a journalist I admire greatly, was taking a different path. How was I going to explain this?

A few days later we caught up by telephone.

He was sickened, Anderson said, seeing those images of Foley, whom he knew and had last seen near the Syrian border before he was captured. He was incensed when a Venezuelan publication ran, without his permission his New Yorker blog post about Foley and ran a picture of Foley moments before his murder, the very picture he objected to. The theft of his writing didn’t bother him as much as the use of the photo.

“For some time I’ve been worried about–that’s how I feel, worried, literally worried as Jon Lee, as a journalist, as someone probably overly seasoned in observing conflict, about the way the Internet’s been used as a tool by terrorists and particularly by these sociopathic, post-modern, gruesome, sadistic terrorists,” he said. “This is an accumulative thing. Technology has increasingly become a catalytic role in conflict. If the act of violence in war is the ultimate culmination of ideals, then the moment at which it is filmed and uploaded is the maximum moment of idealistic expression. And that’s what is sickening about what has happened.”

Lee said he did not watch the videos.

“I didn’t need to,” he said. “It was enough just to see him moments before he was being killed and the horror of that stays with me forever. I can’t get the image out of my mind. And then poor Steven Sotloff, the same thing.”

Anderson said Facebook was the low-hanging fruit in his desire to stop feeling tainted by the inundation of news on his mobile devices, his laptop.

“There’s a moral quick sand that has occurred somehow,” he said. “The lines that we threw aside when we allowed the Internet to free up every boundary in the name of freedom of expression and liberty, what have we got now? We have a lot now that people should never see. If violent porn was already a problem, what about this?”

Writing for The Intercept, which covers national security issues, my former Post colleague Peter Maass wrote that the trouble is not with the publication of graphic images from the videos but that Americans have seen a sanitized version of war. “It is the last taboo in our era of endlessly transgressive media—publishing photos or videos of injured, dying or dead Americans in a war zone,” he wrote. “How has this taboo been maintained? To a great degree, the reason is censorship on the part of the American government.”

The article offers an interesting perspective, and I greatly admire Maass, who, like me, has covered war. But in consulting with my editor at American Journalism Review, I decided not to link to it, only to the publication. At the top of the article is the cover of the New York Post, which shows the militant’s knife at Foley’s neck, presumably just before he was beheaded.

In the end, there is no right or wrong answer to publishing certain images from the videos, said Geneva Overholser, a longtime editor and former director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism from 2008 to 2013.

“Generally we should give people the news, the whole news report, with whatever bounds of taste we have after thoughtful consideration of who are viewers and readers are,” she said. “But it’s really tough.”

Chris Allen, professor at the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was talking about this very issue with students in a mass media ethics course right after the Sotloff video was released. He took the students through a model for making ethical decisions. Beheadings are not unusual in some parts of the world. They are unusual to Americans. Public executions are not unusual. Viewing one on a mobile device is.

“I do believe in access to news events,” Allen said. “There is an impact before or after that should not be covered up. What scares me is that people will go to it just out of prurient interest. The base crassness that some people have. That is a debasing thing. There’s so many layers to this. I have trouble showing the executioner because it’s providing them free publicity because it’s what they want. But in the interest of full disclosure it’s okay to show Americans who they are and what they do. That’s a non-answer. I don’t have an answer. “

Duke University’s Bennett said the gruesome beheadings is not the principle factor in determining whether to distribute the images. “It’s the whole context for their creation, that they are propaganda videos designed to be distributed in order to get a point of this group,” he said. “To become a part of that effort implicates you in ways that are more complicated.”

There is an assumption when journalists publish news or cover news, take photographs and stories and make them public, that it will bring a broader understanding of the world, he said.

“Looking bestows obligations on the looker or the viewer that you really can’t look at something and pretend that act makes no demands on you morally, politically, spiritually,” he said. “It’s important to reflect on the responsibility that these images impose on us not just as journalists but as human beings.”

Amanda Eisenberg, Laura Shaposhnikova and Rose Creasman Welcome contributed to this story. All three are students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

Jackie Spinner ( was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the paper. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and teaches social media and digital storytelling. She wrote about the identity crisis in photojournalism in December 2013.


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