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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT