Mideast crisis raises ethical questions for the media

13 Sep


In both my freshman survey class and upper division ethics class, we have focused for two days on the numerous ethical issues raised by the present crisis in the Middle East, a crisis brought about — at least in part — by the wide distribution of an offensive anti-Muslim video.

There is an ethical dimension to ways journalists deal with the video and related questions of free expression in a free society.

There also are ethical questions related to how journalists have responded to the violence in the Middle East, particularly the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, Tuesday night.

I’ll start with the video.

The trailer to the film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” was first posted on You Tube in July. It gained wider release — and translation into Arabic — when it was promoted in recent days by anti-Muslim fringe minister Terry Jones and other anti-Muslim radicals operating in the United States. That is when it went viral in the Middle East. The film is inarguably offensive, appallingly offensive, designed to denigrate and provoke, mocking Islam’s prophet in a way its producers must have known would spark violence and murder. No reasonably intelligent American could look at this bit of vile, racist propaganda without cringing.

But in our system, expression of even the most vile opinion is protected. Absent a clear and present danger to the security of the nation or clear incitement to violence and murder, First Amendment protections make it impossible for authorities to step in an stop production or disttribution of the hateful video. It is not inappropriate to ask the question, in that context: Does the First Amendment go too far in protecting vile hate speech? The courts have weighed in — see last year’s Supreme Court decision on the Westboro Baptist Church lunatics. But the question bears discussion.

Only in debating the merits of the First Amendment – discussing what it does and doesn’t do, what it ought to do – can we ultimately gain an appreciation for the founders’ foresight. As a First Amendment absolutist, I believe in the free marketplace of ideas and protection of free expression. But I can understand the discomfort of some when protections are pushed to the brink.

What do you think. Should First Amendment protections extend to hate speech? If you supports limits, where would you draw the line? Who would decide?

News coverage of the Libya murders presents journalists with a more familiar dilemma. Photos of Ambassador Stevens’ body were available. The Los Angeles Times and New York Daily News, among others, ran the gruesome photos on their front pages. The New York Times ran a body shot on its website yesterday, but editors apparently believed the photos too graphic for print today. Here is a Poynter piece detailing the photo issue?

We have not spent much time in class just yet discussing offensive content. But we do know there has to be some sort of calculation in deciding whether or not to run the body photos. Are there outcomes so significant that they outweigh the inevitable offense such photos generate?

What do you think?

Challenge yourself to see all sides of the debate. Would your position be different if you were deciding for a paper in Stevens’ home town? Do you worry about the impact on his family and friends? Does that outweigh your responsibility to provide a full and complete report to c itizens? Why?




One Response to “Mideast crisis raises ethical questions for the media”

  1. anaover September 14, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    I have always been against drawing lines when it comes to freedom of speech because once there is any sort of acception, it opens the door to all kinds of grey areas and control. I strongly believe that all forms of speech and expression should be protected, but I also believe that in a case like this of such powerful hate speech where there has already been murder and destruction, it should be debated. We can see that it is building and it now puts more people in danger. In this situation, I think it is justifiable to prohibit the film from the internet so as to not cause anymore harm. It goes beyond individuals and has put our entire country under scrutiny and danger. Any understanding or discussion of such offensive content is impossible when two countries are so incommensurable. I don’t think it is worth the risk at this point where they can let the filmmaker keep the rights to the piece, but remove it from youtube and show that such offensiveness is not being tolerated by the general public.

    As for the pictures of Stevens’ body, I would run them, but without the theatrical headlines. There are ways to treat it with dignity and grace through design. I think the fact that he is an American ambassador makes it that much more powerful to audiences. I never leaned towards softening reality for any situation, but I would definitely take his family into consideration. The point about his home town is interesting, and I think that proximity is a key factor in how to use these photos. If if were a place near his home then I probably would only run the photos of the destruction, as they too are very effective. Still, as it was an individual murder and not a mass killing, I find that the photo is moving and realizes the seriousness of the event. As he was an innocent representative of the U.S., it hits close to home and I think journalism should have that deep emotional effect of the reality of what happened on readers. I believe in portraying everything as close to reality as possible and because of his title, it makes the act that much more profound. The story should have a bit of shock.

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