Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Terrorism and the TV News

Alcestis "Cooky" Oberg has a great editorial today in USA Today talking about how terrorists have taken over the TV news:

However, the Pew Charitable Trusts' 2004 report on the state of the U.S. media found a troubling trend: News outlets “disseminate” news from other sources rather than collect it themselves, and the end video product often becomes repetitive, chaotic and incoherent “raw news.” Ultimately, news decisions are surrendered to those who would manipulate it for their own ends.

This has resulted in non-stop images of hostages, street fighting and gun-waving insurgents. With virtually each new kidnapping or slaughter, a video emerges and is dutifully aired. The source of the footage frequently is not identified. The most dangerous television practice, though, is the “personalization” of news reports.

Putting a face on every gory story has turned some terrorists into celebrities, on par with world leaders. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, told interrogators that he was “inspired” by the “instant notoriety” garnered by the planners of the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. He said he wanted to cast himself as a “superterrorist” in this new “theater” of destruction. In essence, television gave him enormous motivation to commit a bigger, more terrible act.

She points out that TV has become a source of "Terrorist Infomercials" and makes several sensible suggestions on how the network news organizations might deal with this situation:

  • A refusal to air video or other propaganda from terrorist Web sites or other anonymous terrorist sources, except in the rare circumstances that such information warns viewers of an imminent, credible threat.
  • A prohibition against using images that aren't shot by network or other legitimate photographers. That means not using video shot by terrorists or insurgents, because these images are suspect, often staged for propaganda.
  • A new practice of prominently labeling all non-network, freelance or bystander video — akin to the photo credit in print journalism — so audiences can judge the source of each image.
  • A commitment to require the same sharp scrutiny and relentless challenges to terrorists and insurgents that journalists traditionally give our own government and military officials.

I particularly applaud the 3rd and 4th suggestions. What I find most objectionable about the airing of these terrorist images is that it is almost never put into any context by the news organizations presenting it. The images are simply presented without explanation- except for the "man on the street" interview that only serves to confirm the message that the particular network wanted to get across in the first place. There is virtually no explanation of the important aspects of a real journalistic story: we get the "what", "where" and "when"; but rarely an appreciation of the "why" and a watered down version of the "who" (e.g., "militants", rebels", "insurgents", etc. etc. but no use of the word "terrorist").

Read the entire piece.

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