As I write this, three more Western workers have been kidnapped and beheaded by insurgents in Iraq. The pattern is by now sadly familiar. Foreigners are taken hostage. Videotapes are released of the captives kneeling before their masked, armed captors, and demands are made. As the deadline approaches, new videotapes are released of the captives pleading with their governments, often tearfully, to meet the kidnappers' demands. Then comes video of the grisly beheadings.
The first time this happened, it was horrifying and startling. Now it has become horrifying and predictable. Yet many of America's newspapers and TV networks continue to treat these criminal atrocities as the most important news of the day. Newspapers play the wrenching stories on the front page, often above the fold, and the networks feature them prominently, often as lead news items. Good taste has, thank goodness, banished the videos of the beheadings to obscure regions of the Internet, where those who must see such things can find them, but editors and producers have yet to display any equivalent exercise of judgment.
It is time for American journalism to voluntarily adopt more sensible and prudent standards for covering all acts of terror. When I started working as a newspaper reporter, thirty years ago, editors at least claimed to weigh the relative importance of a day's stories before deciding where to run them in the newspaper. Most sober papers, like The New York Times, prided themselves on resisting sensationalism. The steady erosion of this standard has long concerned traditionalists. In today's news world whatever grabs the most attention leads. In general I have no problem with this: people can usually sort out for themselves how the Scott Peterson murder trial stacks up against uranium enrichment in Iran, and nowadays they can readily get more information about either. What disturbs me is the way terrorists use sensationalism to vastly amplify their message. They know that horror and drama capture the media's attention, so they manufacture them. This is why instead of merely executing their victims, they cut off their heads on camera and broadcast the videos. When that gets old, which it will, they will come up with something even more awful.
Must we help them? Granted, the murder of a worker or a soldier allied with the American war effort in Iraq is newsworthy. It speaks to the danger of the place, and to the pain and difficulty of subduing the continuing insurgency. But the emphasis on the recent beheadings has largely been driven by the availability of appalling video. The news business is not a monolith (fortunately), and it has no governing body and no way of imposing or enforcing rules. But shouldn't editors and producers weigh the public interest along with news and shock value? Would some larger journalistic principle be lost if they decided to deny these killers center stage?
There is plenty of precedent for self-restraint in presenting the news. Most newspapers and networks voluntarily withhold the names of rape victims or juveniles charged with crimes. Newspapers routinely withhold the names of sources and restrict quotations from children. Responsible people have long advocated that television networks withhold tallies and projections on Election Day until polling places on the West Coast have closed. Over the years reputable news organizations have even withheld advance knowledge of U.S. military actions, in order to preserve the element of surprise.