Reporting or Spreading? The Ethical Dilemma of ISIS Propaganda News Coverage

by Plume on April 21, 2017 - 5:16pm

In the past few years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East and the Western world through its war crimes, destruction of cultural heritage, and displays of violence against civilians and soldiers. Although the futurist (Botz-Bornstein 1) self-proclaimed caliphate exerts brute force just as any other terrorist group, it differs from such groups due to its strategic omnipresence in mainstream social and news media outlets (Farwell 49). Their use of “state-of-the-art videos, ground images shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages” (Scott) facilitates global propaganda, spreads panic, and recruits international followers.


Because of ISIS’ worldwide importance, news outlets must fulfill their role as democratic facilitators by accurately reporting on the terrorist group’s activities and media presence. An ethical dilemma lies, however, in the way in which journalists should report on ISIS propaganda. On February 3rd, 2015, Fox News published a raw video in its entirety–22 minutes– of terrorists burning Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh alive (“Healing the Believers' Chests”). Notwithstanding the news media’s role of facilitating democracy, the republishing of unedited ISIS propaganda is ethically wrong. This is shown by employing ethical rationalism, which argues that universal moral maxims imposed on journalism are defied and that the actors involved are used as a means to an end, as well as utilitarianism, which suggests that the redistribution of the propaganda creates more harm than good.  


Analyzing this dilemma with the deontological concept of universal moral maxims, ethical rationalism deems that the distribution of ISIS propaganda through mass media outlets is ethically wrong. One might argue that the opposite case–not republishing the problematic videos–dissatisfies one of the universal journalistic principles established by the International Federation of Journalists. There is no doubt that the first maxim of “respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth” (“IFJ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists”) is disregarded when ISIS’ actions are entirely overlooked and not reported-upon. The breach of this maxim is nevertheless entirely avoidable if a news media outlet reports the incident without showing the disturbing video. Fox News’ distribution of the raw video breaches the IFJ’s seventh guiding principle in that it “facilitate[s] discrimination based on […] religion [and] political […] opinions”. Clearly, Islamophobia–which may be bred through the failure to frame the coverage of the video–does not respect the categorical imperative. This negative outcome will be elaborated upon when discussing the dilemma through a utilitarian framework.


Another possible refutation in this ethical framework is that the refusal to show the video in a news report goes against the second principle in the IFJ’s code of ethics by failing to “defend the principles of freedom in the honest collection and publication of news”. Another aspect of this same principle can be used to prove the opposite, however: the only contextualizing information surrounding the video of al-Kaseasbeh’s immolation was the date and the man’s name. This thus goes against the “right of fair comment and criticism” established by the aforementioned moral maxim as well as the duty to “not suppress essential information”. In order for consumers to create their own meanings from the fact of the immolation, they must be presented with an adequate context surrounding it.


Yet another rebuttal lies in the potential illegitimacy of the IFJ’s supposedly universal code of conduct based on cultural relativism. The reality of modern, increasingly globalized media, however, is that journalism surpasses national and cultural borders and perhaps that the Generalized Darwinistic approach applies to societal progress, meaning the more advanced Western media should impose its standards on a global scale (Breslin 219). After all, the IFJ is accepted almost worldwide, representing 139 nations. 


One might finally say that refusing to publish the video undermines the consumers’ agency in that they are stripped of the choice to watch it. Although this is true, one may choose to watch the video on the other outlets on which it is published and come to the news media only to get an accurate report of the immolation and the context surrounding it. In fact, publishing the full video on its own is inflammatory and sensationalistic and uses the story and the actors involved as a means to an end for views and ultimately profit, as news media is ultimately a capitalist endeavour. Moreover, consumer agency has been historically undermined by showing violent imagery in the news (Bailey 149), as was exemplified in the so-called living room war (Oscar Patterson). In summary, Fox News’ full coverage on ISIS’ filmed immolation is ethically wrong from a deontological standpoint when analyzed with the IFJ’s adaptation of the Kantian Categorical Imperative, because of the breach of moral maxims that apply to all journalists at all places and all times, as well as the undermining of consumer agency.


Secondly, analyzing this ethical dilemma with the Fundamental Axiom of the greatest happiness for the greatest number in mind, utilitarianism deems that Fox News’ distribution of the raw video is ethically wrong because it creates more harm than good. Some suggest that distributing the video educates the population of the threat and injustice displayed by ISIS and creates a better outcome. Overall, however, this wariness, panic, or even fright instilled in the population is of a far larger scale than any possible good outcome and may even incite people to turn to an authoritarian and decisive leader. Not only that, but Fox News’ lack of framing creates potentially worse outcomes than any other report which at least provides some context to the situation in question. Without the critical and hyper-removed voice of a journalist, consumers of the news media may conjure up their own context and assume the worst–that all Muslims engage in these horrifying events. A Fox News-like coverage may thus entail disproportionate beliefs about Islam and ultimately foster Islamophobia, which creates a culture of fear and hatred for a huge portion of the human population. This climate in which Muslims are dehumanized then catalyzes disproportionate actions (Doward), as was evident in the Mosque shooting in Québec.


Perhaps the more problematic outcome of publishing raw the raw footage lies in the concept of propaganda of the deed: ISIS’ presence in both social and news media “preserves” and “enhances” its “relevance—and, ultimately, its ideational longevity […] even as it experiences territorial losses” (Winter). This propaganda-spreading creates especially bad outcomes when no context is given and no insightful meaning is offered to media consumers, when the only meaning one sees is that which is offered by the video. In summary, the release of the raw video of al-Kaseasbeh’s death is ethically wrong from a utilitarian perspective due to its failure to create more happiness than harm.


In conclusion, Fox News’ redistribution of ISIS propaganda of the Jordanian pilot’s immolation is immoral despite the journalistic duty to accuracy, because many more universal moral maxims are defied and more harm is created than good than in the opposite case. It is important to note that here, two ends of the spectrum were discussed: the full redistribution and the complete lack of coverage. Ethically speaking, the ideal solution would be to provide a report of the events of the video and to strip it of its propagandist connotation without showing it in full. This ethical dilemma is of utter importance because it comes up time and time again (e.g. in rape cases or victims of attacks): at what point does divulging information stop benefiting and start harming the consumer and where does the journalistic code of conduct come into play?


Works Cited


Bailey, George. "Television War: Trends in Network Coverage of Vietnam 1965–1970." Journal of Broadcasting 20.2 (1976): 147-58. Print.


Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. "The “Futurist” Aesthetics of Isis." Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 9.1 (2017): 1271528. Print.


Breslin, Dermot. "Reviewing a Generalized Darwinist Approach to Studying Socio‐Economic Change." International Journal of Management Reviews 13.2 (2011): 218-35. Print.


Doward, Jamie. "Media Coverage of Terrorism 'leads to Further Violence'." The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 01 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


Farwell, James P. "The Media Strategy of Isis." Survival 56.6 (2014): 49-55. Print.


Healing the Believers' Chests. Prod. Al Furqan Media Foundation. WARNING, EXTREMELY GRAPHIC VIDEO: ISIS Burns Hostage Alive. Fox News Network, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


"IFJ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists." International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


Oscar Patterson, III. "Television's Living Room War in Print: Vietnam in the News Magazines." Journalism Quarterly 61.1 (1984): 35-136. Print.


Shane, Scott, and Ben Hubbard. "ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.


Winter, Charlie. "ISIS Is Using the Media Against Itself." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 23 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.