How Much Is Too Much? (Journalism Ethics)

By Brown, Doug | American Journalism Review, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

How Much Is Too Much? (Journalism Ethics)


Brown, Doug, American Journalism Review


It's either a breach of ethics, an example of bad taste or a journalistic act of courage.

That's the range of views swirling around the use by both CBS News and the alternative-weekly newspaper the Boston Phoenix of a videotape showing the grisly murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, killed by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan in February.

CBS first aired pieces of the videotape in May. The network blended non-gory segments from it into a story exploring how the footage is being used as propaganda in Muslim countries. In June, the Boston Phoenix posted on its Web site (www.bostonphoenix.com) a link to an unedited version of the video, which briefly shows Pearl's neck being cut with a knife as well as images of his severed head in someone's hand. The Phoenix also printed still photos from the video in the paper.

CBS' decision to use the tape kicked up controversy in journalism circles, with some accusing the network of sensationalism. Government officials asked CBS not to broadcast it, saying that Pearl's family was opposed to the footage airing nationwide.

CBS spokeswoman Andie Silvers says the network felt that showing select pieces of the tape was "very important." The network's broadcast "wasn't about Pearl, it was about propaganda and what's out there," she says. "We thought it was important as responsible journalists to show the American people what is being put out there and the effect it is having on the Arab world." The network has "great sympathy" for the Pearl family, she says.

The Boston Phoenix's link to the entire videotape provoked much more criticism. Phoenix Publisher Stephen Mindich says he posted the link on Friday, May 31. By the following Friday, people who went to the Phoenix Web site were greeted by a page dominated by the video controversy, complete with five features (the link to the video, an editorial by Mindich, reader response and so on) and this note: "Due to increased traffic on our Web site, we created this page as a temporary solution to our overloaded bandwidth."

Criticism came fast and furious. Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and a former Detroit News editor and publisher, told the Boston Herald the pictures weren't newsworthy. "They are not breaking any new ground with the story by publishing the photos now," Giles said. "You have to suspect they are trying to draw attention to their newspaper."

In the same Herald report Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers said, "I see no social utility in the depiction of what we already know happened to Daniel Pearl." And Michael Schudson, a journalism professor at the University of California, San Diego, told the Chicago Tribune, "Whether this serves the cause of freedom or terrorism more, I have no idea."

Mindich says he followed the Pearl kidnapping, but his interest in the case faded until he was e-mailed a link to the video by a colleague. An Internet service provider in Virginia called ProHosters was hosting the link.

Mindich says he was so moved by the video that within three hours he had the Phoenix Web site linking to it. Shortly after that he decided to publish the stills from the video--including an image of Pearl's severed head--in the Phoenix.

"I was unequivocally convinced that it needed to be distributed and seen by as many American citizens as possible to understand and to be able to comprehend on a very one-to-one personal level what is going on out there in the world of radical Muslim actions and terrorism and murder, and what is being taught that is manifesting itself in things as massive as the World Trade Center towers and the suicide bombings and murders like Danny Pearl," he says. …

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