Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Newsworthiness and Choice:
A Tale of Two Sensational Stories

This past summer season, news media personnel were faced with two highly sensational, visual, and different story choices. The decisions that were made provide some lessons about the concept of newsworthiness and the power of visual messages.

At the end of May, CBS News, the Boston Phoenix, an independent newspaper, and a handful of Web sites including and chose to show some or all of the three-and-a-half minute propagandized video death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Other news organizations decided to use only written descriptions and quotations deeming the images too gruesome for public viewing or because family and government officials requested that the visuals not be shown.

About two months later, network talk show bookers and producers tripped one another in their attempts to be the first, second, or even third to broadcast an interview with kidnapping and assault victims Tamara Brooks, 16 and Jacque Marris, 17. Their faces filled columns in newspapers and magazines; they told the story of their abduction in their own words and in their own voices.

The inherent differences between these stories as well as the differences offered for why most news organizations responded so differently to the two stories, at first seem obvious. The criticisms heaped on news organizations for their visual presentations of these stories seem different in kind.

What we found captivating, however, is the similarity in the need for news organizations to show, and for viewers to see, such images. That similarity for why both visual stories should have been shown in a restrained way can be found in the principles of newsworthiness.

But, first, let's look at some of those differences.

An obvious difference between the two stories is that of victim or family consent.

Daniel Pearl's family, as well as the U.S. Departments of State and Justice asked CBS News to refrain from using the videotape. Dan Rather defended his organization's decision to run a portion of the video with, "We believe it is important for Americans to see it and understand the full impact and danger of the propaganda war being waged against the United States and its allies, and also its effect on the young people of the Arab world. We did not show the graphic scenes contained on the videotape, both for reasons of taste and out of respect for Mr. Pearl's family. CBS News brought you this report because, even in highly edited form, the video illustrates how far an enemy will go to spread its message of hate for the United States."

The Boston Phoenix reported the Pearl story and was criticized when it provided a Web link to the video. Many told the Phoenix that the video had no news value.

And when the FBI ordered to remove the video, despite the agency's lack of legal authority to do so, the Web site managers briefly removed it from the site. However, Theodore D. Hickman, Jr., the President/CEO of, an Internet hosting company, defended his company's defiance of the FBI's wishes in a letter to "viewers of the video clip." His open letter stated, "In my opinion it should not be hidden or swept under the carpet, it should be available to anyone who chooses to watch it. We have a right to see what terrorism can and will do to our nation, if it is not eradicated at the source. The beauty of our country is that any American can deem what he wishes to be morally right or wrong based on his opinion and his judgment. It is for this reason that Pro Hosters has chosen to release the video in its entirety to the public."

On the other hand, Brooks, Marris, their parents, and law enforcement personnel were eager for media attention to the young women's kidnap and rescue.

Another obvious difference is the end for each story. Pearl was murdered. The young women were rescued. If Pearl had been rescued, the propaganda piece produced by his captors and Pearl's response to his ordeal would have become a litany featured by every newsroom in the land. If Brooks and Marris had been murdered, the struggle of whether to identify them as "rape victims" would not have occurred. No news organization would have thought twice about the need to call them by their names. In one case, the critics of coverage sought to shield Pearl's propagandized parroting of his captors anti-American and anti-Israel message and his beheading; in the other, critics sought to shield the features and voices and stories of survivors of sexual assault. The conventional norm for U.S. news media is to usually refrain from showing deaths or dismemberment and to usually refrain from identifying victims of so-called sex crimes.

It is our view that in determining the newsworthiness of a visual message, these differences should make no difference.

Consent by a story subject, family, or even the consent of governmental agencies is simply not a relevant consideration in the coverage of news. What a surprise it is to young photojournalism students that they don't have to ask for consent before taking someone's picture for a news story. It's when they realize that they shouldn't ask that they are on their way to developing their professional news judgment. We are not arguing in favor of ambush journalism, but rather, are pointing out that it is the journalist's job to decide which visuals are newsworthy and which are not. It is the journalist's job to gather and share those that are.

The pictures associated with Pearl's abduction and exploitation did not lose their newsworthiness because he died. The pictures (and text) that identified the kidnapped women did not lose their newsworthiness when it became known, after the fact, that they were raped. The established newsworthiness of those visuals simply came into conflict with conventional journalistic norms.

Conflict as illustrated by these examples should signal the need for news gatherers and news managers to think outside the either/or box of "print or don't" or "broadcast or don't." Unfortunately, in the case of Daniel Pearl, the conflict lead most news organizations to stick to the text in their effort to be "compassionate." In the case of Brooks and Marris, it led many of the same organizations to participate in a visual orgy with the assumption that the women's consent negated the need for journalistic compassion. The news organizations were wrong in both cases.

Compassion had nothing to do with citizens' need to see these images. It is important to see the cost of war coverage in the voice, face and death of Daniel Pearl. It is important to see the attempt by his captors and murderers to use his tragic death as an attempt at communicating demands and recruits to their cause. Titled "The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl," the video shows a tired and unshaved Pearl talking at times into the camera or off to the side interspersed with news video of violent scenes and gun shot sound effects. At the end, a man uses a large knife to slice into Pearl's lifeless neck. The final scene shows someone holding up Pearl's decapitated head by his hair while a series of written demands scroll up the screen. The video is at once gruesome in its crude use of visual propaganda and in the banality of its violence.

It is also important to see the happy outcome in the voices and faces of the women who survived an abduction that had been broadcast throughout the country. For example, People magazine featured a group photograph by Dana Fineman-AppeIt that spoke to feminine empowerment and unity as Brooks and Marris linked arms with a grandmother and their mothers.

It is important for citizens to see these stories because we are a self-governing nation. Visual messages tell a story differently from print, but almost always, both are necessary for a full understanding of a complex story. The knowledge that comes from both is important, and complementary in producing an emotional and intellectual understanding. What citizens need to see, news organizations have a responsibility to show.

But a responsibility to show a story is not the same as a license to exercise no editorial judgment or restraint. Great journalism is found in how stories are shown, not whether they are shown. Great journalism shows sensitivity to victims of violence while reminding citizens, through the victims' stories, that every citizen in self-governing societies has the power and the responsibility to help shape a world that doesn't include political or pathological violence toward innocents.

In the case of the visual coverage of Daniel Pearl, Tamara Brooks, and Jacque Marris, we found no example of journalists noticing or notifying the viewing public of the need to see these visual messages or the corresponding responsibility that follows.

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