Should the media publish the photos of terrorists

Media have one important job to do: report the news.  Sometimes they also bring in people to help us understand the news and speculate on what it means.  At times outside experts contribute much needed analysis and insight and at others provide little of value to the issue at hand.

In reporting the news there is a measure of objectivity.  True, media outlets have to choose which items to distribute and as there is far too much happening in the world at any given point to cover it all much is left unsaid.  But when they present breaking news about events and developments they usually stick to facts and describe as accurately as possible what is happening.  Editorialising is for another place and time.

In light of the scourge of terrorism, media agencies have no shortage of stories to report (we wish it were not so).  Some of those stories will be accompanied by audio and video feeds and many of those will be disturbing to viewers and listeners (hence the advance warning to consumers before broadcast).  Images will often consist of still photos of terrorists or actual footage of violent extremists carrying out their heinous acts (beheadings are a good example).

The question that has often been raised, however, is whether the media should run these images.  Are news providers not merely glorifying terrorist violence?  Are they not giving terrorist organisations the oxygen they crave?  Is it not possible that these images will inspire others to emulate the acts portrayed?  All very good questions.

This issue came to the fore today when the French paper Le Monde announced that it would henceforth not publish the photographs of terrorist suspects. In an op-ed piece entitled “Resisting the strategy of hatred”, editor-in-chief Jérôme Fenoglio stated that his paper would “publish no more photographs of the authors of these killings, to avoid the effects of posthumous glorification.”   He also noted that Islamic State’s strategy is to foster civil war in France and that he would not be party to that goal.

Strong words indeed and an admirable position, of that there is no doubt.  The question is still out there nevertheless.  There are certainly arguments for and against posting photos of terrorists.

On the plus side we really must stop giving terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Islamic State and others the attention they desire.  We are giving them free advertising.  Our refusal to play their game must also extend to publishing so-called claims of responsibility.  Not only is it difficult to determine whether a claim is real – we know that it is clearly in the terrorists’ interests to be seen as being behind as many attacks as possible since it raises the overall fear level in society – but we seem to be in a feverish chase to discover these claims as soon as possible. Is this really news anymore?  IS et al will continue to make these boasts irrespective of Western media reaction but if we choose to ignore them they will be relegated to lesser known and less important media outlets which only other terrorists read (of course in the era of the World Wide Web anything is available to those who are persistent enough).  The lower the coverage the lower the impact.  Don’t worry: people that need to know these details (i.e. our intelligence and law enforcement agencies) are without doubt all over these sites and they will do what is necessary to respond.

And yet developing a policy of refusal to publish photos does seem a little like the suppression of press freedom.  Terrorism is news and it is of interest to the public.  Shouldn’t the public’s right to know trump the desire to deflate the egos of the terrorists?  It is a good question and I do not have an answer to it.  I would suspect that news organisations would fight the imposition of such controls (they of course could decide to act  unilaterally).

Another aspect of this issue is the hypothesis that terrorist images inspire others to act.  That is certainly possible but I am not sure there is a linear relationship between image and action.  In my experience, the process through which someone becomes a terrorist is not reducible to exposure to a series of photos: it is much more complicated than that.  I see photos and videos as one piece of the radicalisation pie, not its entirety.

In the end I trust that responsible media make responsible decisions (some media clearly do not but the again those are not serious media).  We should probably leave the decision on what to include and what to exclude to them and not subject them to outside interference.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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