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Media's balancing act with terrorism

By Dan Rather, Special to CNN
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Tue September 11, 2012
 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.

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

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