The words in the headlines speak volumes about how much modern technology and social media have fueled heated arguments about what is and what isn’t appropriate to post or publish.
“Nude photo scandal.” “How to handle beheading images?”
There are absolutists who say everything is fair game, as long as we are transparent with the audience. And there are those who ask, whatever happened to privacy, common sense and minimizing harm?
One of the current issues revolves around the nude selfies of celebrities that set the Internet on fire when they were posted on two popular online message boards, anonymously, of course.
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These naked invasions of privacy remind us that the idea of privacy is truly a thing of the past, an antique that is nice to be admired but it no longer exists in today’s world. And you can only hope that young people, especially, recognize that as they surf the various social network sites, leaving impressions that will never go away.
The other issue, and deeply more important to examine, is the beheadings of two American journalists by the Islamic State, the beyond-evil terrorist group.
When YouTube and Twitter removed the images of James Wright Foley’s beheading, the debate was on.
In a recent Rem Rieder column in USA Today, a friend and a respected colleague from my days at the Poynter Institute, Kelly McBride, an ethics authority, suggested that hiding reality is “patronizing” the news consumer and that the video should be shown in a limited context for adults only.
“Demonstrating the barbaric nature of that organization has democratic value,” McBride said. “There is value in documenting and distributing with accurate context a heinous act.” Total blackouts are bad for democracy, she argued.
There are those who want the images aired, she added, because they “are appalled and want to pressure the powers-that-be to bomb the crap out of” the Islamic State. “It’s not democratically appropriate to silence those voices.”
Anyone with as little as a thimble of goodness in his or her soul would be appalled.
But do we need to see it to give voice to our anger or to pressure our leaders into action? Have we become so hardened that we have to be shocked to feel emotions? Do we have to grant hooded and cowardly executioners the very exposure they are seeking when they commit such a horrible act?
And for journalists, is there a time when we can exchange our press hats for caps of compassion without diminishing our roles as authentic witnesses to what is happening in our communities and around the world?
That was a deadline question on the table at The Sacramento Bee in 1996 when Richard Allen Davis, the notorious killer of Polly Klass, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, a sentence that is still pending.
After the verdict was pronounced, Davis turned to the courtroom crowd and gestured obscenely with two fingers thrust forward, looking directly at the grieving members of Polly’s family. Alert photojournalists captured the startling image.
Should we run the picture? After much discussion of the pros and cons, the decision was mine as the then-executive editor. I decided not to publish it, and not because of the gestures. Years before, at another paper, a picture of Nelson Rockefeller giving the one-finger salute at a political convention was green-lighted.
The decision regarding the Davis picture was based on a simple conclusion: Why should we give this terrible human being one more bite of the public apple, one more brutal insult aimed at a family whose heart he had ripped open?
Other papers ran it, and I understood their justifications for doing so. In most ethical decisions like that one, there are no absolute black and white answers. But what I didn’t understand was the idea expressed by some of our critics that we should have published the picture so we could show our readers how much of a scumbag Davis really was.
Wait a minute. He kidnapped and killed an 11-year-old child. Doesn’t that tell you what and who he was?
Wait a minute. Terrorists kidnapped two American journalists who were bravely doing their jobs and beheaded them. Do we really have to look at the video to condemn them and to seek justice for James Wright Foley and Steven Joel Sotloff?
Those men gave their lives doing their jobs with integrity and honesty and devotion to the ideal of searching for the truth. That’s how we should remember them.