You want The New York Times, The Guardian, die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, El Paﾡs and Le Monde to put you on the front page? But you have not been elected president of your country; you have not discovered a cure for cancer; your mega-corporation has not just gobbled up a rival. So?
So you get yourself a submachine-gun and a couple of cronies. Then you kidnap some Westerner in a chaotic part of the planet where he/she is helping the local people cope. Then you announce on the Web that you are going to kill him/her if [some major nation] does not [pay millions of dollars/empty its prisons/remove its troops]. That's it! Instant world celebrity for less than 200 dollars. If you actually murder the poor guy, you get true VIP treatment. Even better, kill 300 and take gory pictures.
You can be assured that the media will help you become famous and influential, even though you represent no one-and are the sleaziest bum on earth.
The media have a warped idea of journalism, everywhere in the world. They should inform people of what is important for them to know, so that people can live comfortably and can play their part as citizens. The rest is entertainment. Yes, even mass deaths, caused by man or nature, if they take place far away enough and do not reveal anything useful and new, will be consumed as entertainment. The thrill of horror, as in movies, novels or in the now defunct Grand Guignol theatre, is a classic form of entertainment.
"If it bleeds, it leads." Journalists are trained to seek and select the dramatic, the contentious, the negative. Good news is no news-a dictum so stupid one could weep. Believers call the crucial message of Christ (accessible salvation) the "Good news." Ask a scientist whether not discovering anything is worth reporting as news. Ask the man-in-the-street which he prefers: a wedding, a birth, a golden anniversary...or a funeral. On the newsman's part, that obsession with the negative derives from laziness, I believe. Accident, conflict, failure, disaster are events so much easier to report! Good news often consists of trends and processes. Finding and reporting them requires talent and energy.
In other words, the dramatic is visible, like the tip of the iceberg-it may be interesting but very often is unimportant. Reporting on reality needs to concentrate on the 4/5ths under the surface: that's where the important events are taking place obscurely, or are developing into what could one day emerge, terrible or wonderful.
Now, let's get back to the terrorists. The major weapon they use is not the car-bomb or the kidnapping. It is the media-not media of their own, which they do not have-but the general media, mainly those of their adversaries. They turn them into loudspeakers, enlargers with which to blow up the scenes they stage. Thus, using terror, a tiny group can acquire tremendous power. They kill one person-and get more attention than a storm would by killing 10 or an army would by killing 100 or 1000. How? By moving in the dark, keeping up the suspense (though not for too long), making their final moves as shocking as possible, like beheadings or the dead bodies of children. And by providing the media with photos, audio and videotapes.
So, what's the solution? Certainly not government censorship, i.e. preventing media from saying anything about terrorists. It might silence the terrorists but you cannot fight for human rights by suppressing the most important one of them. As for self-censorship, it also sounds bad: that's what you do to not offend a minister or a large advertiser!
I suggest self-regulation. Give the news as succinctly as possible: no particulars or comments. A man was kidnapped today in Baghdad at 9 o'clock. Period. No assumptions about the kidnappers. No echo to their demands. No reference to his wife's anguish or photos of his children's tears. All that can wait. If the general public needs to know, which is debatable, it can wait until after the situation has been cleared up.
A common excuse for terrorism is to say that it is a strategy of the weak against the powerful. The German forces called the French Resistance fighters "terrorists" during World War II. Menachem Begin, later to be prime minister of Israel, was a commander of Irgun, a terrorist group fighting the British army in Palestine. But what we face now most often is indiscriminate terrorism-slaughtering and maiming people who are not involved in the fight, for the sake of attracting attention to some cause or other.
The media, or at least the journalists, should get together and agree on their counter-strategy. The survival of democracy (without which the survival of mankind is doubtful) requires that media not be manipulated by gangs of fanatics. Since two airliners were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York three years ago, vast precautions have been taken to filter passengers. But no measures, none whatsoever, have been taken to prohibit the hijacking of our media.
The answer probably is that present-day media are used as cash-machines by profit-oriented, rabidly competitive, corporations. And journalists often are tradition-bound individualists incapable of thinking ahead and showing solidarity in the service of the public.
Or has nothing been done because the industry and the profession lack an instrument to achieve that purpose? A means to get together, to debate important issues, to adopt a common policy and to make it known. Such an instrument potentially exists: the press council.
A press council is an institution that brings together media owners, editors, reporters and members of the public. It is an institution that normally is not statutory; it is set up by the news industry itself with a double purpose: to protect press freedom and to enforce a code of ethics, though the council only has moral authority. Most democracies-from Iceland to Australia, from Peru to Thailand-now have press councils. Unfortunately, most press councils limit themselves to being "complaints commissions," processing the grievances of readers/listeners/viewers and, when they cannot work out conciliation, publishing their judgment on the case.
Press councils gather all the major protagonists in the news process: media owners, media professionals and media consumers. That is why they could and should do more in today's situation. If provided with adequate funding, they could monitor the news media more assiduously (to spot their omissions, probably their worst sins) and could develop an interest in training and research.
What they most need to do, in my view, is promote a new definition of journalism as a 21st century public service and make journalists aware f their crucial functions in society. Newspeople must join together with the aim of improving human society. Or at least to not be used by some who would destroy civilization.
Alas, journalists did not do enough to oppose fascism, nazism and totalitarian communism. Now, with new communication technologies, they can do more. The journalistic profession needs to form a united front against terrorism. For that, it needs the support of the general public to ward off economic pressure. So, it must prove to the public that it is responsible and responsive to the people, not just to the owners, advertisers, or news sources. That, I believe, can be achieved by using "media accountability systems" (M*A*S) of all kinds. The press council is a crucial M*A*S, but just one among at least 80 that are available. (See MEDIA ETHICS, 13:2:17, Spring 2002.)
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp. 3,17-18.