ISIS and the Media

Lily Rosengard 27 September 2014

If you have been anywhere near a newsagent, television, or even the internet in the past month, you will be aware of the horrific beheadings conducted by ‘Jihadi John’, one of the many killers of the murderous group ISIS. You may no longer even have to read the headline to know what has happened, as we have now become unnervingly accustomed to seeing a man in an orange jumpsuit on his knees, with another dressed in black standing beside him, knife in hand. This scene is set against the bright blue sky and non-descript desert plain behind them that looks less like a real background, and more like something one could draw on paint. Each time I see this image I cannot help but note the flawlessly vivid blue backdrop, one made infamously iconic by Al-Qaeda on 9/11, where orange burning flames were set against a completely incongruent beautiful blue sky. 

We have now seen this image three times, and there is no way of knowing how many more times we will see it again. However much we hope never to set eyes on this image again, we must accept that in the not too distant future, we will most probably be confronted with the orange, black and blue of another public murder.

Most chilling is the regimented predictability of the beheadings so far, each within 2 weeks of each another. These murders no longer seem random, like the large-scale terror attacks we have all grown up amongst. Fighting ISIS and stopping these murders is not something we can personally do. What we can hope to influence is the insensitivity shown by the media in presenting this shocking ordeal. After the murder of James Foley, then Steven Sotloff, and most recently David Haines, it seems as though our media has developed a mundanely scheduled protocol for each beheading that takes place. 

Perhaps most shocking is the lack of responsibility taken by journalists themselves, as many of the articles I have read recently seem to be aiding ISIS in their violent acts. There were articles in the past few weeks stating that security service analysts have been trying to locate ‘Jihadi John’ using evidence gleaned from the videos. It seems the ISIS cameraman reads the newspaper in his spare time, as he has corrected his error third time ‘lucky’, by taking care never to show an image of the whole figure of either victim or murderer at once. It has been reported that in the third video, the cameraman also decided it best not to take a shot of Jihadi John’s footwear, having shown his desert army style boots in previous videos. By explaining at each stage what exactly it is that security experts are trying to do to hunt down these killers, the media has become complicit in the execution of ISIS’s abhorrent cinematic works. ISIS really should give thanks to these thoughtless journalists in the opening credits of their next video, heaven-forbid they are not stopped in time.

One thing seems to be clear; ISIS is a media-savvy organisation. Their clips of both Obama and Cameron at the start of their videos plainly show that they keep up with current events on TV. We know they are avid Twitter users too. We must stop underestimating ISIS; this is a new brand of extremist terrorism; it is intelligent, it understands technology, and it uses our own channels of dissemination against us. Long gone are the shoddy threat-bearing videos taken on amateur cameras by a shaky hand. This is something new. 

Even if you can escape the screens showing the events of the murder in vivid 1080p, the extensively detailed and sensationalist way that the events of the video have been written out serves to satisfy those sinister impulses that lie within us all. It is the same perverse impulse that begs us to drive our car even slower on the motorway to catch a glimpse of the action of the car crash on the other side of the road, and it is being adapted by ISIS and our media to make us watch the murder of our own citizens. 

I, along with the vast majority, have never attempted to view the beheading videos released by ISIS. However, when faced with an article describing each moment of the video, I seem to find myself transfixed, reading every word. I haven’t purposely tried to seek out this information, but now I feel as if I may as well have just watched the video itself. Just as television can’t legally show the video on the news, I do not agree with the idea that just because it has changed its form into writing, the same content is suddenly harmless. If anything, the vast power of our unchecked imaginations makes it worse. 

ISIS are certainly the evil ones – that’s a given. However, this does not mean that newspaper editors and journalists should not stand up and recognise the immense power that they have. The media must understand the damage they can cause through their output. They may depict ‘transparent reporting’ as a noble act, almost a public service, but they must also realise the associated dangers. By putting huge still images from the execution videos on their front covers, discussing how security service analysts are using details from the videos to track down ‘Jihadi John’, and by explaining every second of each video in their articles as if they were harmlessly reporting on a Saturday afternoon football match, these journalists are being hugely irresponsible. 

This type of reckless reporting desensitises the public to appalling acts, and helps ISIS become more aware of what they should be doing differently to protect their location and identity. If we can be certain about one thing in this world, that is that we should never, ever, be helping ISIS.