It is no surprise that we are an image-obsessed culture. We live in an age where a picture tells a thousand words, YouTube videos tell a million, and “Jennifer Lawrence photos” trends more than “Jennifer Lawrence” herself.
On one hand, this is beneficial for news reporting. Images and video clips supply the news consumer with important information, define histories and conflicts, and evoke powerful sentiments that push citizens to rally around an important cause.
On the other hand, images that elicit fear amplify a message, affecting our rational thought processes that are vital for decision-making. Dr. Ted Brader, professor of media and politics at the University of Michigan, argues that politicians and media “routinely appeal to the emotions of voters, a practice critics claim subverts the rational decision making on which democratic processes properly rest”.
In other words, we are not completely rational when it comes to consuming emotional images and videos. As a society that strives for rationality and democracy we must ask how we, the news consumers, are affected by images and videos that portray terrorism, such as the recent beheadings of journalists.
On September 2, 2014 the highest trending search on Google was “Steven Sotloff video,” with “Sotloff video” right behind. News consumers were fascinated with the graphics of the incident, although not every news outlet decided to show the video, and some even decided against showing a screen shot.
Joseph Kahn, a foreign editor of the New York Times, told Margaret Sullivan in a recent interview that they decided to show the photograph of the beheading, and not the video, because “The still photograph doesn’t have the propaganda value of the video […] It did, however, have significant news value, standing for and conveying the totality of the broader, horrible story.”
Al Jazeera, on the other hand, decided to not even show screen shots of the video. Their choice, although unconventional, may have been a wise one.
Studies show that by reading or viewing about danger, we believe that those dangers are more prevalent than they actually are. While this could be positive when there is an actual threat to our daily lives, it becomes negative when it promotes a disproportionate amount of fear. And this is exactly what terrorist groups want — to promote fear in the target population – resulting in fearful people to lobby their government to concede, at least temporarily, so the terror stops. This is why in each of the videos of the journalists’ beheadings, the terrorist demands that Obama takes certain political actions, or else there will be deadly consequences.
With the knowledge that showing terrorists’ videos helps facilitate their ultimate goal of scaring a population and hindering their rationality, what responsibility, if any, should news outlets have to decrease the amount of fear that is spread as a result of showing an emotional video? Did Al Jazeera hinder – undermine free journalism by not providing the news consumer with all the information they had? In other words, when does newsworthiness end and terrorist propaganda begin?
There is no obvious answer, but from a counterterrorism perspective, it is vital that media coverage of emotional reports is precise, without added sensationalism. News outlets should ask themselves if there is any value or information added by showing a photo or video of violent incidents. Ultimately, adding drama only increases the public’s fear of attacks, which aids terrorism’s goal of ensuing fear in a population.
But alas, the news outlets are not the only ones in control of how terrorist propaganda is controlled. Ultimately, as the news consumer, it is you who decides whether or not to gawk at images or click play. It is critical to be well-informed consumers, knowing that observing and watching is not a choice without consequence on a personal, and even national level.
Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee.