Terror and the media: Are we neutral observers or participants?

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Terror and the media: Are we neutral observers or participants?

I will be speaking today at a Washington seminar on the tricky subject of “Democracies Fighting Terror – What Can Israel and the United States Learn from Each Other’s Experience?” (a joint venture of IDI and TIP). The topic my panel is tasked with is: “The Media: A Neutral Observer or a Participant?” Here are a couple of paragraphs from my opening remarks:

So – are we a participant? In an article for the Naval War College Review, back in 2002, Douglas Porch wrote about the differences between the coverage of World War II and the Vietnam war – the war in Iraq can be another example to the same argument. It is not the presence of censorship in World War II making the coverage different, Porch wrote, but the absence of victory in the war that was covered less favorably – namely Vietnam.

But what about a war with no clear victory? What about a war in which soldiers play a secondary role and civilians are those paying the price? The natural tendency of the media is to gravitate toward the sources that are most obvious and available. Tyrants and terrorists like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Osama Bin Laden learned to welcome reporters – to stage media events, some of them horrific in nature. The possibilities available to them for distortion, manipulation, and disinformation are growing. Can the media, should the media play a role in trying to prevent them from doing so?

In the case of terror, the dichotomy separating the “neutral observer” from the “participant” is false. When it comes to terrorism the observer is a participant whether he likes it or not, and the choices one has to make are not the grand, easy, choices of setting the strategy or the principals dictating the coverage. It is, rather, a daily struggle with smaller dilemmas, detailed decisions. Do you share with the readers the story about the head of the Palestinian bomber? And if you do, does it make you the neutral observer sharing the cold realities of the event with the readers? And if you don’t, does it make you a participant, conspiring to masquerade to horrific nature of the attack?

Such dilemmas are constant reality in a newsroom cursed with the reporting on terror attack. I remember many such dilemmas: in the so-called Ramallah lynch, in the early days of the intifadah, a Palestinian mob killed two Israeli soldiers who wondered mistakenly into Palestinian territory. They killed them, and then throw the bodies from the window in the second floor.

The photographers were able to document this terrible moment – and presented us in the newsroom with a problem: Do you print the photo of an Israeli soldier thrown out the window? Do you think about his family and friends? Do you think about morale? Do think about the implications it will have on the public mood?

This photo – which we did print on the front page – played an important role in the rapidly deteriorating situation between Israelis and Palestinians: it made Israelis angrier, more resilient, less likely to listen to reason. If you’re a man of peace you might not want such photo to be printed – if you’re a man of national pride you also might not want it printed. So – who were we serving here? What kind of role did we play? We were participants with no other choice because not printing the photo would also make us participants.

And there’s always this question that reminds me the days in the boys scouts when we were asked to say whether we are first “Israelis” or first “human beings.” Are we first journalists – or Israelis? Do we have to do our job forgetting that we have families and friends and society we belong to – or we have to think first about the interests of this society. Another grand – but false – choice.

Shmuel Rosner Chief U.S. Correspondent



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