Skip to main content

Media's balancing act with terrorism

By Dan Rather, Special to CNN
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
 A man at a newsstand n Medellin, Colombia, reads about the death of the leader of FARC last year.
A man at a newsstand n Medellin, Colombia, reads about the death of the leader of FARC last year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Colombia's president warns journalists not to unwittingly help terrorists spread fear
  • Dan Rather: Santos says media is Colombian rebels' bullhorn, inflating their strength
  • Rather: Media can avoid this by putting terror in context, being judicious in reporting
  • Rather remembers not grisly images, stories of 9/11, but those humanizing the tragedy

Editor's note: Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of AXS TV's "Dan Rather Reports" (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET). For more, visit Dan Rather's website, Dan Rather Reports on Facebook and Dan Rather Reports on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Terrorists, by definition, want attention. They commit violent acts to cause fear -- terror -- and disrupt normal life, all in the hope of gaining attention for a cause.

When I was in Colombia recently, President Juan Manuel Santos delivered a speech that's been rattling around in my head ever since. In it, he cautioned news media, particularly television reporters, against being used and manipulated by terrorists.

"I'm not saying, and be careful not to misinterpret me, that terrorism is the media's fault," Santos said. "No. But terrorism thrives on generating terror."

It's a message that reporters everywhere should ponder: The news media can help terrorists just by reporting their frightful acts to a mass audience. I can't help but reflect on the most dramatic act of terrorism on our soil, and the tough, sometimes agonizing editorial decisions American journalists made in its aftermath.

Dan Rather
Dan Rather

Santos has long experience fighting terrorism in its many forms.

Before he was elected president, Santos served as defense minister under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. He and Uribe turned the tide in a complicated and costly conflict, at 47 years the longest in the Western Hemisphere, that had very nearly turned Colombia into a failed state. The players were a left-wing revolutionary movement and army known as FARC, a countering force of right-wing militia and death squads, big-time cocaine cartels and the government's armed forces. All sides used dramatic acts of violence and brutality to try to break the back of the enemy.

Today, the conflict has been reduced to a simmer. With massive financial and other help from the United States, Uribe and Santos set out to drastically diminish the war by targeting top FARC leaders. Their efforts are not yet complete. But they have succeeded greatly, pushing FARC deeper into the mountains.

Now, after decades of living in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, millions of Colombians enjoy normal lives, a growing economy and political stability. Santos told me that FARC is down to just a few thousand diehards. But desperate to show they haven't been cowed, these rebels have continued to bring bloodshed to villages, blow up oil pipelines and even stage the occasional attack on the capital, Bogota.

In his speech, Santos accused the media of serving as a megaphone for these desperate rebels, and in doing so, inflating their hold over society. He gave the speech shortly after I interviewed him, so I didn't have an opportunity to seek clarification about his remarks. But I highly doubt this intelligent and respected leader is suggesting that we all turn our backs the next time a car bomb detonates, a suicide bomber explodes or a gunman opens fire in a crowded theater or house of worship.

What I believe is that Santos was cautioning his local media to report these acts responsibly and with context.

Each article we write and each television segment we produce is the result of dozens of editorial decisions. Which images should appear in print? Which shouldn't? What information is relevant to the story? What should be left out? What does this event mean and why should you, the viewer or reader, care?

In all reporting, context is key. The best in our profession don't just gather and regurgitate raw information. They pass it through a tumbler of those critical questions, inject historical perspective, analysis and rigorous fact-checking. Ideally, after all of this, out pops a polished, informative and contextual report.

Unfortunately, not all reporters rise to this level.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I strolled past kiosk after kiosk covered in a cascade of newspapers showing decapitated torsos and hanging bodies on the front pages -- the gruesome handiwork of drug gangs. Anyone walking by or picking up one of these papers is left with a feeling of terror -- the precise message the cartels want to deliver.

In many cases, newspapers are the first to hear when a body is left by a trafficker. They get a courtesy call and dutifully splash the carnage on their front page, sell their papers and also sell the traffickers' message: Get in our way and die a painful and ugly death.

In his speech, Santos accused Colombia's news organizations of a similar macabre arrangement with leftist guerrillas.

"Many times, the journalists have been told ahead of time," Santos said. "Logically, the journalist goes because that is his function, his duty. I'm not criticizing the journalists. In a certain way, they are using and manipulating (the journalist), that's true. But they have become very able in this sense, which magnifies their acts."

True or not, newsrooms covering terrorism everywhere should do what they can to ensure their reports serve the public and not those committing violent acts.

On 9/11, there were many possibilities: People leaping to their deaths. Severed limbs. Bodies lined up at the makeshift morgue. But nearly 11 years later, the most indelible of the images for me are those that told a wider story: The ash-covered moonscape of ground zero. Heroic firefighters lifting a flag. The slack body of Father Mychal Judge, seemingly at peace as he is carried through a dust cloud.

These images evoke stories about the humanity of that horrible day rather than incite the fear of that the perpetrators sought. This is the tough needle I think Santos is asking his press corps to thread.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Rather.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT