James Foley was a 40-year-old freelance photojournalist. He was born in New Hampshire, and was a graduate of Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. In 2011, he was abducted (along with three other journalists) in Libya, while covering that country’s civil war; 44 days later, he was released. But in 2012, he was kidnapped again, and his whereabouts were unknown — until last night, when ISIS posted a YouTube video of Foley’s beheading, announced as retaliation for recent airstrikes in Iraq. And then Gawker linked to that video, a fucking monstrous but not uncharacteristic editorial decision. And then, loath to let anyone else win the race to the bottom of the sewer, the New York Post put a screen-grab from the same video (of the knife to Foley’s throat, even) on their cover. And tweeted it. (We’re not linking to either of those outlets in this piece, because fuck them.)
Meanwhile, in Ferguson, Missouri, journalists from around the world have put themselves in harm’s way to capture images of a militarized police force gone amok, and a community in anguish and anger. And those journalists’ work on the ground helped shine a much-needed light on the events there; the first few nights of protests were barely mentioned in mainstream media, and it took the arrests of The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly to “get the mainstream media machine moving,” per Politico.
Since Wednesday, with the eyes of the nation on them, forces in Ferguson have arrested 11 more journalists reporting for outlets around the world, from The Telegraph and Getty Images to Sports Illustrated to Breitbart News. Cops lobbed tear gas at a team from Al-Jazeera America and disassembled their equipment; threatened to “shell” Mustafa Hussein, operator of one of the story’s most vital live streams; and threatened to mace MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. But the journalists haven’t left; Ferguson is an important story, and it’s their job to cover it.
Predictably, there has been some pushback. Noah Rothman (writing on a site called, appropriately enough, “Hot Air”) accuses reporters in Ferguson of getting “swept up in the moment” and warns that “too many reporters openly identify with protestors” — which would seem an understandable hazard, since they’re getting goddamned tear-gassed like protestors. The morning after Lowery and Reilly’s arrest, know-nothing blowhard Joe Scarborough got on his cozy morning shill-fest and smugly announced, “I don’t sit there and have a debate and film the police officer unless I want to get on TV and have people talk about me the next day.” Which makes sense, as Scarborough isn’t actually a journalist; since he has no education or training in the profession, the only experience he has with news is his own: of being someone who “want(s) to get on TV.”
And don’t get me wrong — there are certainly journalists out there, on the ground in Ferguson (and DC, and Iraq, and Syria, and just about anywhere that news is happening) whose motives aren’t so pure, who are covering these stories to make a name, to get attention, or (at their worst) to stir the pot. But that’s not the majority, because that’s not the job. We’re witnessing a week in which journalists are risking their own safety and well-being covering one of the year’s most important stories, a story where their very presence has done a traceable good — and then here comes the story of another journalist who lost his life while doing the same. But as quickly as that life is lost, the worst elements of the profession turn around and exploit it.
To be clear: the ISIS video is terrorist propaganda. It is intended to shock some and rally others; it is intended, most importantly, to be shared. And by doing so, Gawker and the Post are doing more harm than good. The Post will claim, as its defenders already have, that war is hell, that we must see this savagery in all its bloody horror to understand the seriousness of the situation. That is a debatable point. What is not debatable is what it means to take an image of a man’s last seconds on earth and slap them on your cover to sell newspapers. That is exploitation.
Once again, we will not link to these sites — not to the Post’s cover page, not to the cover among Newseum’s gallery of “Today’s Front Pages,” not to the paper’s tweet of the cover (though we can only wonder if Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s vow to suspend accounts displaying it will extend to the Post). We won’t link to Gawker, which (parenthetically!) notes that the video is “(extremely disturbing)” and then helpfully provides a link to it anyway. We’re not linking to these organizations, because that is their goal — to get that traffic, not to inform nor enlighten, which can be done without images and video of an American journalist getting his head cut off. Their goal is to get clicks from rubberneckers, to monetize a tragedy. If there were ever any doubt of that endgame, last week’s leaked New York Daily News memo, thanking reporters for keeping their Robin Williams stories “SEO strong” with their “buzzy search words like ‘death, dead, suicide, etc.’,” cleared that right the fuck up.
This is the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, an organization dedicated to “improving and protecting journalism since 1909.” Its second section, “minimize harm,” notes, among other points, that journalists should:
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
The organization also offers a PDF version of the code of ethics, handily compressed onto one single page. The folks at the Post and Gawker might want to think about printing up some of those and handing them around the newsroom — if their reporters can glance away from their Big Boards long enough to read them.