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Terrorists' visual warfare uses the media as weapon

By Matthew Felling / August 4, 2004


With America handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people a month ago, one phase of the war is behind us. But if recent developments are any indicator, we've entered a murkier, more troubling arena in the war on terror: visual warfare.

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Videotaped executions, from that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, to another purported to be that of Army reservist Matt Maupin, to that of a Turkish hostage on Sunday, are barbaric killings that terrorize the eyes and minds of Americans and everyone worldwide. Terrorists last month threatened to kill a captive Filipino and succeeded in driving the Philippines' small contingent of troops from Iraq. [Editor's note: The original version failed to clarify that a videotaped execution referred to was only purportedly of Army reservist Matt Maupin. The Army continues to officially list him as captured.]

Years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised us freedom from fear in addition to freedom of speech, of worship, and from want. But in media-crazed 2004, that fourth freedom is at odds with the freedom of the press.

Troubling questions abound: Does terrorism exist without the media? Does coverage of terrorist acts empower or encourage the people behind them? If terrorism is directed more at the audience than at its victims, shouldn't television journalists stop giving terrorists the forum they covet? Can they? Now that attacks on American soil have begotten attacks on Americans abroad, these questions need to be answered in America's newsrooms.

In a Howard Dean Scream age of hype - where footage is run and rerun particularly in the absence of story developments - broadcasters need to start considering new internal guidelines in order to remove hype from terrorism coverage. Excerpts from the execution of Nick Berg, an American entrepreneur in Iraq, were aired repeatedly. When terrorists gave the US 72 hours to comply with their demands before executing American contractor Paul Johnson, the cable networks breathlessly ticked down the time remaining. Network anchors lament global terrorism even as they become complicit partners.

Broadcasters must create internal guidelines for terrorism coverage. Some networks made decisions to stop replaying 9/11 footage after a few days. Also, with a few exceptions, no viewers were exposed to the victims leaping from the towers. That's a good first step. But how about some other loosely formalized rules, rather than the usual postevent hand-wringing?

Perhaps a hard cap on replaying footage of terrorist events for only a day or two would help, as the incessant 9/11 footage traumatized many viewers and emboldened the men behind it. Another good idea would be showing only still photographs of terrorist videos, rather than the more chilling sound and motion. Maybe television producers could consign footage to a certain time slot, so that those who wish to stop watching would be forewarned. The options are legion.