Scandal over media decision to post controversial content
The decision by a media organization to publish controversial content is often done when the interest of the public is considered greater than the consequences of such publication. The public good versus the privacy of a citizen can even be used as defence by media lawyers in court. And of course these days, with online commenting so simple, the court of public opinion is always the first to rule.
The trick in each case with such content is to decide exactly where to draw the line. This brings us to two very different stories that ran this week by news organizations that decided the public had a right to know.
In a story that created waves around the world, but especially in the United States, the Los Angeles Times ran a story and two photographs showing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan posing with the body parts of Afghan corpses. The images were two of 18 that had been given to the paper by a soldier who said he wanted to show how command of this unit had fallen apart. The Times verified the images had not been doctored and that the soldier who sent them was legitimate. It contacted the Pentagon, which did not deny the images were of U.S. soldiers, but asked that they not be published. In one shot, soldiers are shown smiling, holding up the severed legs of a man. The images are graphic and gruesome and the Times decided to run them regardless of what the Pentagon asked. It did wait a few days so the soldiers shown could be protected however. The White House has now officially apologized for the behaviour of its soldiers in this case.
In a very different story, media organizations around Toronto decided to post a video sent by a member of the public, of the mayor getting a takeout meal from the KFC. This mayor, Rob Ford, weighs more than 300 pounds and has made his quest to lose weight is a matter of public record. In fact, he stands on the scales once a week for members of the press so his efforts can be monitored. The shaky recording was taken by a woman from her car, who gave her first name, but not her last and admitted she was also eating some KFC takeout. The question arises over whether the public really needs to know where the mayor gets food.
Aside from the fact that the U.S. soldier story makes the KFC video look embarrassingly trivial, the debate about whether they should have been published is essentially the same.
In both cases, the court of public opinion came down on either side of the fence. (As with all online commenting, it also wandered off in a bunch of unrelated directions, but that's a subject for an entirely different blog post.) A lot of criticism, however, was directed toward the media organizations for publishing the content in the first place, made by people who, presumably found the stories worthy enough to read just before they commented.
Here are comments from the L.A. Times
For the record, the image we've used in this blog is of U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta apologizing for the incident with the soldier.