News Judgment and Jihad

Terrorists depend on the cooperation of the media. It's time to stop providing it

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.

Leading the news with acts of terrorism is often both journalistically unwarranted and—assuming that decent people everywhere would like to see such acts cease—tragically self-defeating. In a democracy, policy is ultimately set by the people, so anybody can alter it by scaring enough of them. Theoretically, a handful of depraved and determined men with a video camera can make the strongest army in the world back down. But to prevail they need journalism's help—and until the world's media stop giving it to them, they will continue killing and videotaping.

Most deaths, at home or abroad, have little real significance beyond the immediate personal tragedy—and, sadly, there is no shortage of that in the world. The slaying of a soldier or a foreign worker in Iraq has a certain local impact: it frightens those in the vicinity and is likely to prompt improvements in security procedures. But it doesn't significantly alter the facts on the ground. The occupying army still controls the same neighborhoods and roads, and still vastly outnumbers and outguns those who oppose it. This past September, in the same week that two Americans were beheaded, more than 3,000 people were killed in Haiti by Tropical Storm Jeanne. On average more than a hundred Americans are killed every day in auto accidents. None of these deaths is any less final than a beheading—an act that makes political sense only if it can be made to influence public policy. But graphic news coverage, tearful vigils with family members, high-visibility funerals, commentary, and analysis can make any tragedy influential.

Without a doubt, the recent beheadings in Iraq were newsworthy and deserved to be widely reported. The American press should never be in the business of censoring or burying bad news, or of becoming a propagandist for the government or military. It is also true that as such sadistic acts have frightened us, they have better acquainted us with the nature of the insurgency. Sensible people recoil. One might argue that giving such stories prominence isolates violent Islamist extremism, which, like the Ebola virus, is too deadly to spread all that far.

But those beheadings were not the most important events in the world on the days they occurred. Nor were they even the most important developments in the region, where American soldiers and volunteers for the Iraqi police force continued to be targeted, and where officials were wrestling over when to hold national elections. The beheadings led the news in so many places strictly because they were so terrible and because they were on videotape, a medium that so vividly conveys the horror.

They led because the cold men behind them wanted them to. I think we should consider the consequences of continually giving those men their way.