Terrorists, by definition, want recognition; they crave it. Without recognition there is no terror. They commit violent acts to cause fear, terror, and disrupt normal life, all in the hope of gaining attention for their cause. Without the media they fail to achieve this goal.
Columbia’s President Juan Manuel Santos delivered a speech were he cautioned news media, particularly television reporters, against being used and manipulated by terrorists.
“I’m not saying, and be careful not to misinterpret me, that terrorism is the media’s fault,” Santos said. “No. But terrorism thrives on generating terror.” To achieve this terrorism requires the “assistance” of the media.
It’s a message that reporters everywhere should reflect upon. The news media can help terrorists just by reporting their frightful acts to a mass audience. In the most dramatic act of terrorism on US soil, tough, sometimes agonizing editorial decisions were made by American journalists in its aftermath.
Santos has long experience fighting terrorism in its many forms. Before he was elected president, Santos served as defence minister under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. He and Uribe turned the tide in a complicated and costly conflict, at 47 years the longest in the Western Hemisphere, that had very nearly turned Colombia into a failed state. The players were a left-wing revolutionary movement and army known as FARC, a countering force of right-wing militia and death squads, big-time cocaine cartels and the government’s armed forces. All sides used dramatic acts of violence and brutality to try to break the back of the enemy.
Today, the conflict has been reduced to a simmer. With massive financial and other help from the United States, Uribe and Santos set out to drastically diminish the war by targeting top FARC leaders. Their efforts are not yet complete. But they have succeeded greatly, pushing FARC deeper into the mountains.
Now, after decades of living in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, millions of Colombians enjoy normal lives, a growing economy and political stability. Santos told me that FARC is down to just a few thousand diehards. But desperate to show they haven’t been cowed, these rebels have continued to bring bloodshed to villages, blow up oil pipelines and even stage the occasional attack on the capital, Bogota.
In his speech, Santos accused the media of supporting these desperate rebels, and in doing so, inflating their hold over society. This intelligent and respected leader is not suggesting that we all turn our backs the next time a car bomb detonates, a suicide bomber explodes or a gunman opens fire in a crowded theater or house of worship.
Moreover, Santos was cautioning his local media to report these acts responsibly and with context.
Each article journalists write and each television segment produced is the result of dozens of editorial decisions. Which images should appear in print? Which shouldn’t? What information is relevant to the story? What should be left out? What does this event mean and why should you, the viewer or reader, care?
In all reporting, context is key. The best injournalists don’t just gather and regurgitate raw information. They pass it through a number of critical questions, inject historical perspective, analysis and rigorous fact-checking. Ideally, a polished, informative and contextual report is the result.
Unfortunately, not all reporters rise to this level. In the recent attack at Woowich in the UK, the event was played and replayed on television, splashed on the front pages of newspapers, analysed, theorised, speculated and commented upon by all manner of “experts”. The perpetrators have achieved what they set out to do. Then of course there is the “citizen journalist” recording the event on a mobile phone and promptly uploading the vision to YouTube and the like. But that’s another story.
In Mexico, a cascade of newspapers were showing decapitated torsos and hanging bodies on the front pages, the gruesome handiwork of drug gangs. Anyone walking by or picking up one of these papers is left with a feeling of terror which is the exact message these gangs want to deliver.
In many cases, newspapers are the first to hear when a body is left by a trafficker. They get a courtesy call and dutifully splash the carnage on their front page, sell their papers and also sell the traffickers’ message: Get in our way and die a painful and ugly death.
In Colombia Santos stated, “Many times, the journalists have been told ahead of time,” Santos said. “Logically, the journalist goes because that is his function, his duty. I’m not criticising the journalists. In a certain way, they are using and manipulating the journalist, that’s true. But they have become very able in this sense, which magnifies their acts.”
True or not, newsrooms covering terrorism everywhere should do what they can to ensure their reports serve the public and not those committing violent acts.
Source: Dan Rather, CNN (as edited)