Should websites link to beheadings in Iraq?

The beheading of Kenneth Bigley was made public via the internet, as have many of the previous beheadings in Iraq. This story is a summary of the many discussions I have had with online editors, journalists, journalism students and academics on the ethical, political and emotional questions regarding links to such video footage on news websites.

I started with an opinion poll among final-year journalism students at Rhodes University where I teach.
The response was contradictory: about 75% approved linking to the video, but almost all of the comments posted in a forum were against actually viewing the footage. 

One of the students posted: “If there is a link, then people can decide for themselves whether or not to view it—I don’t [think] there should be bias towards either side in a war.” 

Another said: “The consequences of [linking to it] are tantamount to propaganda, depending on which side of the political line you are on.”

The distinction between viewing the beheadings as part of the war in Iraq or viewing them as isolated criminal acts is closely tied to opinions about whether linking to the video is acceptable. 

Those who see these incidents as a direct consequence of United States aggression towards Iraq all seem to feel that giving a website visitor the choice to see the video is a good thing. It makes sense: if it is acceptable to show a bomb blast killing many, then it should be appropriate to allow visitors at least to see footage of a small group killing an individual. 

Independent Online (IOL) did not link to the video footage. IOL‘s content manager, Babs Abba Omar, said: “IOL refrained from linking because we do not want to be complicit or associated in any way with promoting the actions of cold-blooded killers.

“We do not want to give them gratuitous exposure, just as we would not link to, say, a porn site, whether for newsworthiness or sensationalism. We refuse to be their publicity agents. We refuse to be party to their attempts at ‘legitimising’ their actions.”

Those close to me who have watched the video—most of whom are quite leftist in their political views—say they are now more likely to support the war in Iraq. They all agreed that watching the video footage left them in a state of shock that lingered for days.

Johann van Tonder, multimedia editor for Die Burger, recently showed a group of students at the University of Stellenbosch the footage of the Nic Berg beheading. He has concluded there are some things to which people should not be exposed, for psychological reasons. 

“That experience, specifically, proved my suspicion that some material is simply too graphic to share with a broad audience. Psychologists talk about secondary or ‘vicarious trauma’, referring to people being affected indirectly by a traumatic experience. In the faces of my students, I could see this happening as they were watching the video,” said Van Tonder.

The egalitarian nature of the internet as a publishing platform has provided a new, powerful channel for extremist groups to disseminate their message, Van Tonder pointed out.

“For me, the question of censorship enters where we start making decisions based on the fact that we don’t want to give the captors a voice. As someone observed: these videos have taken the place of press releases,” he said. 

News24.com did not link to the video footage, but displayed pictures of Bigley prior to his beheading. News24 content manager Bryan Porter said: “We asked ourselves whether showing images of the beheading, or linking to the video, would add any news value to our coverage of the Bigley murder, and our answer was no, and that showing it would have been gratuitous.” 

Elan Lohmann, Sunday Times Online manager, said: “We would not link to this footage. We would view it as gratuitous and not necessary for a reader to understand the horrors of a story.”

Iafrica.com content manager Françoise Gallet feels the same way.

“The key criteria in making this decision was premised on whether witnessing the beheading would add to the reader’s understanding of the associated issues and events,” she said.

“In our general reporting on any beheadings, we do inform our readers when militant groups post visuals of the beheadings on their websites. So while we chose not to direct any readers to such sites, our readers can search the internet for such information themselves via search engines or applying a bit of web savvy,” said Gallet.

Everyone agrees, more or less, that not linking to the video is not the same as censorship. 

Of course, it is easy to find the video online, so not linking to it is not the equivalent of denying someone the ability to find it. But then again, why not link to it if it is so easy to find anyway? 

On the other hand, the question of whether showing the video adds to the story is a tougher one—until you consider that the same argument, taken further, would make all television news video footage irrelevant because there would be no point in showing video if you could simply be told what happened by a presenter. 

The Mail & Guardian Online says it would link to the video and editor Matthew Buckland says it would do so because “it brings home the horror and chaos in Iraq”. He made the distinction that clicking on a web link is an active choice, whereas leaving one’s TV on during one of those “not for sensitive viewers” moments is an act of “omission”.

Notably, Buckland alluded to the connectedness between the war in Iraq, the beheadings and a higher cause on the part of his publication to heighten awareness among his readership.

If the online media want to treat the video footage as a press release, it would make sense to edit the footage (as they would a normal press release) and host it on their sites, allowing users to decide what level of sanitisation they would like to apply to it. The complexity of using the internet as a medium yields interesting new options that go beyond the traditional media’s black-and-white possibilities.

The idea that the material is too brutal, insensitive or gruesome for an audience of active viewers is contrary to the reality of the war in Iraq—or any other war, for that matter. The minute we buy into the idea that war is clean and tidy, we buy into a different type of propaganda—that of the US government and its military.

Whichever way one looks at it, people searching for the video will find it easily.

This fact substantially waters down the ethical questions around this issue—it could even become a question of ethics whether to inconvenience those looking for the footage by not providing a link if one is covering the story anyway.

  • External link: Click here to download the video. [Warning: This extremely explicit, violent footage shows a man being executed by militants. It is viewed at your own risk and by your own choice. M&G Online is not responsible for the content of external websites. By downloading the video, you are affirming that you are over 18 years of age.]

  • Should news sites link to the Iraq beheadings? Have your say

  • Read Vincent Maher’s blog: What is wrong with online media?

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