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How Should The Media Handle Beheading Videos?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The video showing the murder of British aid worker David Haines has triggered new outrage across the world. Stills from the video are appearing on news broadcasts and websites, recharging an old debate. When is it appropriate to show such images when reporting a story? Is it ever appropriate? Kelly McBride is the media ethicist at the Poynter Institute. When we spoke earlier today, she was in transit at an airport in Cleveland. I asked her about the ethical hazards news organizations face when using images provided by terrorist groups, like the so-called Islamic State.

KELLY MCBRIDE: It's a really hard decision for news directors and news editors to make. These images and these videos are meant to be propaganda. They're meant to spread fear and terror. And when you do that - when you use these images - if you don't use them in the appropriate tone, you really are going to just play right into their hands. So I know - I don't counsel people to never, ever use the images. But I try and tell them to pay very close attention to how they're using them, to make sure that they tell their audience how the images were obtained and what they were meant to be used for. And then I also try and tell them to add other context to the images. So, for instance, if you're showing an individual who is about to be executed, if you show other photos of that individual where he's not being held as a prisoner, it changes the tone of the coverage completely.

RATH: A lot of news organizations, including our own website, have been using photo stills from the video. Is that a problem?

MCBRIDE: You know, I think when you use them to try and tease the audience into the stories, I do think that those can be a little inflammatory. And I think, you know, even if you use a photo from the video and then another photo - if you splice it together, it has a different impact.

RATH: Clearly, groups like Isis understand how Western media operate and want to use us to amplify their message. What's the newsroom conversation you like to hear when that dilemma comes up?

MCBRIDE: You know, what I want to hear people talking about is can they use the photo in a way that conveys that Isis is, yes, a terrorist organization? But how do you help the audience understand more about Isis? Isis spends a lot of time trying to make people afraid of them. How many people are in Isis? How well-funded are they? Where are they located?

By adding all of that information, you tend to give the audience more than just, gosh, they're beheading Westerners. We should be afraid of them. And so giving more information often takes the power away from Isis and puts it in the hands of the news organization or of the people who were trying to respond to Isis.

RATH: In cases where there's a hostage situation, there's always a concern with news organizations that you're going to be a mouthpiece for the hostage-takers. Is that something that applies in cases like this?

MCBRIDE: Yes. It definitely does. And most news organizations that have worked in an international arena have a lot of information about how to minimize the harm to hostages. And a lot of that they keep in the background. But most news organizations are paying attention to that information, and if they're not, they should be. And so if you're an editor or a producer in a news organization that hasn't been privy to those conversations, you just need to get with somebody who has.

RATH: Kelly McBride is the vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute. Kelly, thanks so much.

MCBRIDE: You're welcome. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.