In Covering Foley's Killing, Media Outlets Face A Difficult Choice

The execution of the American journalist James Foley by ISIS casts new attention on how news organizations cover graphic violence, and how they cover the risks taken by their own colleagues and peers.

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News organizations face complicated choices when they have reporters operating in areas of conflict. The killing of journalist James Foley by Islamist militants throws those tough questions into sharp relief. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I caught up with the Reuters reporter David Rohde earlier today, amid the bustle of the lobby of an office building in midtown Manhattan. He had been captured by the Taliban while reporting in Afghanistan, and held hostage for months before escaping.

DAVID ROHDE: I think you want the public to know the reality of what's happening on the ground, but not have it gratuitous. Their goal was to shock and terrify and horrify people.

FOLKENFLIK: Rohde argues the differences between European and U.S. governments are endangering reporters. The Europeans pay ransoms and the U.S. does not. Rohde says American media organizations struggle whether to pay up or whether to smother stories on the abduction of reporters in hopes of protecting them. He says that's failed as an approach.

The Sunni extremist group ISIS planned Foley's killing as a ready for the social media age moment. The actual video of his beheading was uploaded to YouTube and widely shared. Foley's sister Kelly asked people on Twitter to stop watching or sharing the video. YouTube removed it and Twitter instituted some algorithm-driven safeguards, but the footage can still be found on such sites as LiveLeak. It's tough, tough stuff.

Jess Hill is a former foreign correspondent in the Middle East. She met Foley through mutual friends in 2012 before his abduction.

JESS HILL: At the time, I was concerned about him because, you know, obviously it was dangerous to go into Syria from the very beginning, even before the kidnappings began, and he was going in very frequently. But he didn't come across as cavalier at all.

FOLKENFLIK: Hill is now an investigative reporter for ABC Radio, as in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She said she sought to avoid images of the execution online, and then saw the picture of Foley with a knife to his throat on the front page of the tabloid Sydney Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The New York Post, Murdoch's American tabloid, had a similar front page yesterday with the headline savages.

HILL: When the Daily Telegraph puts a photo like that on their front page, they may as well be distributing a recruiting leaflet because there's a reason why ISIS stages such a dramatic image, they make him read out a message, you know. This is all propaganda that they want people to disseminate.

FOLKENFLIK: My efforts to secure comment from the Post were unsuccessful. But yesterday's front page was reproduced in miniature on today's front page. CNN sought restraint as correspondent Jonathan Mann explained to viewers last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN MANN: What should we do? We thought about it and we hope we made the right choice. The extremists shouldn't win today. The victim, James Foley, should be remembered.

FOLKENFLIK: CNN broadcast no video from ISIS and just a brief audio clip hoping the sound of the executioner's seemingly British voice might yield clues for authorities. Like many competitors, CNN relied on earlier photos of Foley in happier times. Again, David Rohde.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROHDE: You know, Jim Foley was a human being with a really full, rich life and an amazing career. You know, I hate to see that image be the kind of lasting image of Jim Foley.

FOLKENFLIK: LiveLeak kept the video of Foley's death up, but in a statement on its website, said it would not post any new executions by ISIS, saying no value would be served. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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