The terrorism story, complex in nature and global in scope, challenges all of us to revisit the elements of responsible reporting – principles it might be easy to forget as we deploy staff, computers and cameras for the next act in the hottest running drama many of us will ever see.
Since the point of terrorism is to act against a state by inspiring fear and eroding public morale, it is more important than ever that we not evoke needless fear. That requires three initial commitments:
- No trafficking in rumors. The broadcast of unconfirmed reports on Sept. 11 about an attack on the State Department did nothing to help listeners understand what actually had happened, and in fact only made the fear greater than it needed to be.
- No speculation about how grave a situation may be. The natural wish to assess the loss of life at the World Trade Center strayed badly when early numbers approximating 10,000 were used. What are news consumers to think now that we know the actual numbers were less than a third of that?
- Scrupulous checking of facts. Even my impeccable sources were never infallible. Nobody’s are.
The state may cite a need to avoid spreading fear as a reason to withhold information, but that is something we must resist. If the public learns we have been less than candid, our credibility will quickly erode. And if the press is not believed, fear and cynicism will be all the greater – which would hinder society’s ability to do what is needed in times of emergency.
BE CAREFUL WITH MOTIVES
Probably the most-asked question about Sept. 11 was “why?” One of the hardest things to do in public affairs reporting is to convey accurately the motives of the actors. It is not enough to say that evil or madness explains terrorism. A leader’s ambition, mental imbalance or lack of morality may contribute to his actions, but could he inspire followers if they had no grievance that was, in their view, not being addressed? In fact, our greatest risk of error may occur when we try to read the minds of our subjects and report what we think their inner motives are.
Instead, look at the needs and deeds of those who follow. One reason Ernest Hemingway’s reports from Europe for the Toronto Star in 1922 are so interesting is that they revealed a deep German hatred of America and its World War I allies during the depression that followed the Treaty of Versailles. I can’t say whether Hemingway’s Canadian readers could see ahead to Hitler’s war, but they would have had to be dense indeed not to see that Germany was ripe for demagoguery.
THINK OF THE POLITICS
Conditions hospitable for recruiting a radical army certainly exist many places, not least among them the growing cities and unemployed populations in much of the Muslim world. The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries where al Qaeda recruited are hardly the heroes of any human rights movement. For half a century or more, the industrial world has generally averted its gaze from the aspiring hungry and dispossessed citizens of the lands that supply the raw materials for our consumer economy. If we are lately surprised by what sprang from those places, all of us should be asking what signs we overlooked in the daily flood of fact across the news wires, and what – if anything – we did to accurately convey to Hometown USA the conditions that have had such far-reaching consequences. You know the answer, don’t you?
Terrorism has been the weapon of the weak for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Its name comes from the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, when thousands were thrown into prison, drowned or simply guillotined to wipe out any resistance to the uprising that cost King Louis XVI his own head.
More broadly, terrorism is one way to make war when you don’t have what it takes to face an army that threatens you or stands in the way of your ambition. And war, as the strategist Karl von Clausewitz famously said, is merely an extension of politics by other means. That’s why, as we cover terrorism, we need to think and write about economics as much as weapons, and human rights as much as human nature.
John D. Hopkins is a copy editor at The Miami Herald and until October 2001 was chairman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.