If a news organization is in possession of authentic images or video footage of a newsworthy event, should it air them? The question is so intriguing because every scenario must be evaluated individually. Al Jazeera faced such a decision this week.
The broadcaster received video footage of Mohammed Merah killing three Jewish children, a rabbi, and three French soldiers. (For more on this incident, please see: “Sarkozy Blames the Internet for Jihadist Violence.”) The video was likely sent to Al Jazeera by an accomplice, according to recent reports. French police had reported that Merah, who was shot in a standoff with police, wore a camera around his neck while committing the crimes.
The network decided not to air the video, even though police had verified its authenticity. Al Jazeera explained the decisionon its English-language website. The network deemed that video did not contribute any new information to the story, nor did it meet Al Jazeera’s code of ethics.
The third point in the television network’s code of ethics states that Al Jazeera will:
Treat our audiences with due respect and address every issue or story with due attention to present a clear, factual and accurate picture while giving full consideration to the feelings of victims of crime, war, persecution and disaster, their relatives and our viewers, and to individual privacies and public decorum.
By those standards alone, a disturbing video that fails to change the story does not need to be aired.
Zied Tarrouche, chief of Al Jazeera’s Paris Bureau, described the content of the video in greater detail. Along with footage of the killings, it contained music and the reading of Koranic verses, Tarrouche said. Choosing to air the video would have invited the second decision of whether to mute the sound laid over the footage.
Another factor to consider is the sender’s motivation for distributing the video to Al Jazeera. The choice to give the video to a credible news organization says something about the intended outcome. If the sender only wanted a wide audience to see the video, he or she could have uploaded it to an online forum. Rather than relying on news editors to make a decision, he could have reached viewers directly.
Instead, the video went to Al Jazeera, a respected and influential news broadcaster. Merah was seemingly seeking a level of legitimacy. A letter accompanying the French killings video claimed that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. In the past. Al Jazeera has broadcast video messages from Al-Qaeda and received criticism for it. This time around, Al Jazeera made a different call. I think it was the right one in this case.
(The photo is by Paul Keller via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)