The emergence of a cameraphone video showing the execution of Saddam Hussein last week unleashed the usual torrent of stories examining the difficult decisions newspaper and television editors faced programmes should use it. The Guardian and the BBC discussed their decisions on their respective editors’ blogs in the last few days.
But are the dilemmas different online in print or on air? As in this case, a graphic video might already be widely available on video-sharing sites and therefore accessible to anyone with access to a search engine.
Moreover, unlike a newspaper or television programme, a web site can require its readers to click through a warning to gain access to to graphic material. Before it became clear what material would become available, Steve Outing argued there is no question that stills or video of the Hussein hanging should be published online.
On his blog Outing wrote:
To not make them available (with appropriate warnings) just marks you as an anachronistic editor who’s still trying to enforce his/her own sensibilities on a public that no longer needs editors dictating what they do or do not see. The new-media ethic lets news consumers make up their own minds.
Once the the cameraphone video was released, Outing wrote in a second post:
Mainstream news editors can no longer expect to be the sole arbiters of taste when it comes to what the public sees in events like this. The full gruesome reality is available online and likely will be from now on when it comes to big news stories.
This may be true, but something isn’t quite right. Mainstream news sites don’t habitually link to terrorists’ beheading videos just because they are already in the public domain, for example. And the next time this issue arises — as it inevitably will — the footage in question may be far more graphic. On the BBC editors’ blog, for example, commenter Graham Basden wrote:
I spent 30 years in the TV industry as an operator, and my duties often required me to edit out footage deemed too graphic for news viewers. They were sometimes a lot worse than an execution. Not only couldn’t I sleep sometimes for days, I ended up, at 50 years old, a psychiatric patient on a disability pension, never able to work again. I still get nightmares from some of the stuff I was “privileged” to see.
So is there really a different “new media ethic” just because major media no longer have an airtight gatekeeping function over what enters the public realm? Or can editors, while acknowledging the existence of the such material elsewhere, only be responsible for what is (re-)published or linked to on their sites? My guess is that it’s the latter.