The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did New York tabloids go too far by printing gruesome images of James Foley’s execution?

An undated photograph of James Foley. (Nicole Tung/GlobalPost via European Pressphoto Agency)

The New York Post and the New York Daily News don’t care if you don’t want to see what a man looks like moments before he is decapitated. They will show you anyway.

They do not care that as you walk to work, your eyes may pass over the image sitting on the newsstand of journalist James Foley with a knife glistening at his neck, as he was depicted on the cover of the Post.

They also do not care that as you peruse Twitter and other social media, these gruesome images might make its way into your feed.

The decisions by both tabloids to feature cover images of Foley in his orange jumper, knife to his neck, moments before his life came to an end, came without public explanation and no justification. We have reached out to both the New York Post and the Daily News for comment and will update if we hear back.

There’s no book on journalistic ethics that says exactly what to do at moments like this. And these decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis in American newsrooms.

Most news organizations have chosen to use images of Foley that do not clearly lay out the means of his execution.

But the tabloids decided to graphically highlight the horror of Foley’s death at the savage hands of Islamic State militants in the most prominent place in their publications — a decision that has been widely criticized. No other newspaper with print circulations among the top 25 in the country included an image of Foley and his murderer, knife in hand. Both also used the same headline: “SAVAGES.”

On the Web, it is almost impossible to expunge graphic, hurtful images. The video of Foley’s death, though easily found online, has been removed from YouTube at least once. But as of this writing, it can still be found, presumptive in its full, graphic detail. (This reporter won’t watch to find out.) Some of the videos come with a disclaimer, others don’t.

Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo said the company would begin suspending accounts that tweeted graphic images related to Foley’s death. Yet Twitter declined to suspend the New York Post and Daily News after both tweeted images of their cover pages.

In a statement, Twitter said that the images come with a disclaimer that hides graphic content from users whose media settings require the warning:

“The Post’s tweet contains this warning for some users, depending on their media settings,” Twitter said in a statement to Business Insider. Twitter has not responded to The Washington Post’s request for further clarification about why some accounts have been suspended but others have not.

But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that tabloids chose to err on the side of shocking sensationalism.

Indeed, the New York Post notoriously printed the image of a New York man struggling to pull himself onto the subway platform, moments before he was hit and killed by an oncoming train.

And the paper caught flak for running a cover page headlined “Who didn’t want him to die?” which seemingly heralded the murder of a slumlord who was found burned in a dumpster.

It also isn’t limited to print tabloids.

Earlier this year, celebrities pleaded with online tabloid TMZ to remove graphic images and video of the car crash that nearly killed comedian Tracy Morgan.

These decisions boil down to ethical judgment, which is in journalism a choice, not a requirement.

“We recognize that our work can have great impact on the subjects we cover and therefore we must respectfully balance that against the public’s need to know,” reads the Society for News Design’s Code of Ethical Standards. “Even when it is impossible to avoid harm in the pursuit of truth telling, we will work hard to minimize that harm.”

It is hard to see how either cover image adheres to these broad ethical strokes. Beyond the knowledge that Foley was killed by his captors, did the casual viewing public need to know — and see — how? Does the information conveyed by the images change the horror of what happened? Does it do anything other than inflict harm on Foley’s family and passersby who may or may not seek out the images?

“I would argue putting these images on page one breaches most of what I’ve read and learned about visual journalism ethics,” commented Charles Apple, a longtime newspaper graphics editor. “But then again, I don’t think most of what I’ve read about visual journalism ethics applies to NYC tabloids.”


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