The ethics of viewing other’s suffering; The James Foley execution.

“Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … the rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.” Susan Sontag, 2003.

When the American journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by members of the terrorist group ISIS who are currently storming the global media sphere, the world was left in shock and disgust. Not only was the execution filmed and posted on the group’s Youtube account, the image of his killer holding the blunt butcher’s knife against Foley’s throat was splashed all over newspapers both in print and online globally and in Australia. No matter where you turned, the haunting picture was there and it could not be avoided. Foley’s family expressed their concern and sadness over those who chose to watch the video and viewed the pictures as well as sharing them on social media sites. They asked that their son’s life be respected by sharing only nice photos of James, and to respect their wishes of keeping a positive memory of him alive.

This is just one example of how ethics can be questioned in the communicating of human suffering. Tabloid newspapers such as Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph and The New York Post posted the image of James Foley’s final moments on their front pages with headlines such as “Savages” which more than gained the attention of their viewers. This, for myself included, was a confronting way of reporting the news of the journalist’s death and one that left questions of the morality and ethics associated with doing so, considering his family’s requests.

Here’s an example of how the Australian media may have gone too far in their coverage of James Foley’s execution, as speculated by ABC’S Media Watch.

This can be seen as an example of news sources exploiting photographs of human suffering in order to shock and confront readers, leading to many readers including myself, questioning whether this is ethical. In his article regarding the controversial Time magazine cover of a mutilated war victim, Max Fisher suggests that controversial front cover images such as this create a “window of reality” which can be vastly different from the actual situation which is depicted through the image. He suggests that although such images as the one shown on Time Magazine’s front cover are very confronting and challenging for readers, there are indeed hard to look at but need to be seen in order to gain some form of awareness and consciousness of what’s being conveyed.


One thought on “The ethics of viewing other’s suffering; The James Foley execution.

  1. I like that you have presented both sides of the argument in your blog post, it is a very balanced approach. You raise the question of ethics in regards to the viewing of other peoples suffering.

    This is such a difficult line in the sand to find, and I do not envy the editors who had to decide whether or not to publish the images of Foley in the moments before he was brutally murdered.

    However, I think I lean to the side of showing images of the darkest corners of the world. The job of the media is to act as a watchdog, to report the truth and when the truth isn’t something nice, that just makes it even more important to report. I was an exchange student in France when I was seventeen, and one night at dinner we were watching the news. Footage of the aftermath of a bomb blast in the Middle East played, horrific images with no prior warning flashed across the screen. I asked my family how they could show that on television, and they were genuinely confused. How could they not show it? They asked me in return, anything less would be censorship.

    Media Watch made some interesting points on the ethics of viewing other peoples suffering on July 28 2014 in an episode on the coverage of the MH17 disaster, titled ‘How far is too far?’ (
    They began with the question, do we need to see? I think this is a great guide, is the image simply for voyeuristic purposes or do people need to be aware that this is happening? Do we need to be shocked out of our apathy? Yes, then publish.

    I like that you included the piece about how his family requested that James Foley be remembered as he was. However, and I obviously am hesitant to say this because I do not want to be insensitive, Foley was a journalist reporting on a horrible conflict. He risked his life throughout his career to bring people stories from places the world often didn’t care about. I have to wonder if he would have wanted that image published. I never knew him, but I would have to think that he would not want what happened to him to be swept under the rug.

    I think you did a great presentation of both sides of the article, nice work!

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