The New York Times only used one image of terrorist group ISIS’s video showing the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, but Times public editor Margaret Sullivan questioned if the Times should have done so.
Sotloff, a freelance journalist for Time magazine and Foreign Policy, was kidnapped last year in Syria. The U.S. government authenticated the video of his death.
“The Times’s decision to use a small black-and-white video image on an inside page was a reasonable one, and I understand the newsworthiness argument,” she wrote, after reporting the Times‘ foreign editor Joseph Kahn’s explanation that the newspaper had an obligation to report on the video. “But not using anything at all from this despicable video would have been even better,” she added.
In addition to the black-and-white image published in print, the New York Times published the color version of the image from the video in its online coverage as well, iMediaEthics notes. The image shows Sotloff kneeling with a masked person in all black holding a knife. The caption reads:
“A screen grab from a video shows American Steven J. Sotloff, 31, just before the masked person appeared to behead him.”
The Times’ coverage of Sotloff’s murder didn’t include a link to the ISIS video, Sullivan added. The Times did describe the video in its Sept. 2 online story, “ISIS Says It Killed Steven Sotloff After U.S. Strikes in Northern Iraq,” writing:
“The hostage, Steven J. Sotloff, is shown in the video kneeling like the previous victim, James Foley, while a masked figure stands above, wielding a knife. Mr. Sotloff addresses the camera and describes himself as “paying the price” for Mr. Obama’s decision to strike the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in northern Iraq.”
The Times’ Kahn defended the publication of the video to Sullivan “The still photograph doesn’t have the propaganda value of the video.”
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Sullivan also questioned why the Times identified Sotloff as Jewish last month in a report on the threats to kill him made during ISIS’s beheading video of freelance journalist James Foley.
That Aug. 22 story, “Steven Sotloff, Journalist Held by ISIS, Was Undeterred by Risks of Job,” was prepared in advance and the Times planned to use it if Sotloff was killed but went ahead and published it. “The story was initially produced on the assumption that it would not be used until and unless ISIS followed through on their threat,” Kahn told Sullivan, but he said that the Times went ahead because it wanted to report on Sotloff.
The Times article noted that “Sotloff’s family had desperately sought to keep his abduction quiet, apparently fearing publicity could further endanger him” until ISIS released the video of Foley’s beheading, showing Sotloff and threatening to kill him.
The Times pulled the reference to him being Jewish after approximately half an hour because Kahn said “it came to my attention that the identification of his religion was widely perceived as providing sensitive information.” But, he said the TImes thought ISIS was aware of Sotloff’s religion.
“Mr. Kahn said that The Times had good reason to believe that ISIS already knew that Mr. Sotloff was Jewish, and that he was selected because he was an American and not because of his religion,” Sullivan reported.
The Toronto Star received four complaints over its briefly-posted edited video of Foley’s beheading, Toronto Star public editor Kathy English wrote last month.
The New York Post used a front page image of Foley just prior to his beheading in its coverage, for which iMediaEthics criticized the tabloid.
Several Australian publications used still images from the video of Foley on their front pages, but the Sydney Morning Herald said it decided against publishing “the most graphic images and video.”