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Making Sense of Coverage of Beheadings

Sep 7, 2014

Credit AP

There's no doubt in anybody's mind that the beheadings of American journalists by ISIS extremists is news.

But the distribution of videos of those beheadings is also clearly part of an ISIS propaganda campaign.

So how can journalists cover the story and not play into the hands of ISIS propagandizing?

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project said that most media outlets are -- at least -- restricting how much of those videos they show.

"Some are showing small clips of them. But for the most part these videos play right into the hands of ISIS because they are essentially messages of propaganda. They are messages meant to spread terror," McBride explained. "The more you show them, the more you carry out their message."

But journalists can't just ignore the ISIS beheading videos.  Is there a way to cover this story without becoming part of the ISIS propaganda machine?

"Savvy journalism organizations are doing a couple of things when they use even the smallest clip of these videos," said McBride. "They're adding context by describing ISIS as a terrorist organization and by describing how controlling ISIS is of the message that gets out to the world about who they are and what they do and how they control media about their organization."

So that's how good journalists handle the ISIS angle.

But there's another angle to this particular situation:  are reporters giving this story more attention because it involves the murder of reporters?

"This is a really hard question to answer," McBride said. "I think naturally journalists react to the killing of one of their own. But, in addition to that, by striking out at reporters, ISIS is striking out at two American values -- free speech and free press. And those are things we consider to be synonymous with civil rights. So it is different when a reporter is executed because that is an attack on the very criticism of an organization or a power structure that ISIS doesn't what to tolerate, that they see as uniquely American."

It should be noted that while the execution of two American reporters is indicative of an increasingly dangerous environment worldwide for journalists, it is journalists from other countries who have been facing the brunt of the violence.

"Thirty-four journalists have been killed this year and most of those have been killed either covering conflict or they have been targeted by those who want to silence their voices," explained McBride. "It's not American journalists who face the greatest danger. The journalists who face the biggest threat are the local journalists or those who serve as translators or 'fixers' for American journalists."