When the Associated Press, CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse, MSNBC, Fox News, and the Guardian all concur in their reportage of unambiguous, easily verifiable matters of fact, generally you’re safe in taking it on faith.
Not always, though, as can be seen from reports on videos released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). All of these sources—and many more—have stated on numerous occasions that these videos show the beheadings of hostages. But this is simply untrue.
This is not to say ISIL did not behead these people. The videos do show what appears to be the beheaded bodies of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and most recently Alan Henning. But the question here is not what ISIL has done, but whether the media has accurately reported the facts.
Those facts are clearly on display for anyone to see. In each video, after giving a speech a masked, British-accented spokesperson for ISIL takes a knife and motions as if he is starting to saw away at the necks of his bound, orange-clad captives. But only in the Henning video does the act appear to be genuine, and in all of them the picture fades to black before so much as a drop of blood is visible, fading back in only once the deed has been completed off-camera.
ISIL’s willingness to take and murder hostages—including via beheadings—is not in dispute. But does that truth justify fabricating details for the stories?
Only two possibilities exist for how these fabrications came about, especially considering that they have been oft repeated by each of the media outlets involved: either the authors of the reports didn’t see the videos on which they are reporting, or they did and are choosing to report falsely on what the videos show.
If the reporters didn’t actually see the videos, this is simply (which is not to say excusably) a form of bad journalism that has become ever more common in the age of the World Wide Web and its 24-hour news cycle. With media outlets tripping all over themselves to stay current, there is a temptation to report that which is being reported elsewhere without taking the time to independently verify the purported facts.
This practice may not be inherently unethical, so long as the writer admits that the information in question is secondhand and cites the source of the information (especially easy to do online, where one can hyperlink directly to any source). However, more often than not journalists like their reportage to appear as if all of it is firsthand—not to mention the fact that presumably many media outlets are loath to direct traffic to a “competing” outlet. As a result, sometimes media outlets don’t reveal the origin of the information they are passing along.
Fox News, in reporting on the video featuring Alan Henning, provides an example of how major media outlets sometimes simply crib from others. A side-by-side comparison between the Fox News article, and the Associated Press story on the same subject shows Fox News to have lifted almost all of the AP copy verbatim to construct its own article. For example, where the AP story reads, “This is the fourth such video released by the Islamic State group. The full beheadings are not shown in the videos, but the British-accented, English-speaking militant holds a long knife and appears to begin cutting his victims, who include American reporter James Foley, American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid worker David Haines and now Henning,” the Fox News story echoes the confirmation that the ISIL videos do not show beheadings, despite Fox News’ having published claims to the contary (see, for example, here): “This is the fourth such video released by the Islamic State group. The full beheadings are not shown in the videos, but the British-accented, English-speaking militant holds a long knife and appears to begin cutting the three men, American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines.” (Note that in changing end of the AP article’s sentence, Fox News mistakenly implies that there have been only three videos.)
While some of the outlets reporting on the content of the ISIL videos may be piggybacking on the misinformation of others, presumably at least some of their writers did indeed view the videos and then consciously chose to misreport what they show. While it may be hard to tell which is the case in blatantly false proclamations like CNN’s “ISIS video shows beheading of Steven Sotloff” and the New York Times‘ “ISIS Video Shows Execution of David Cawthorne Haines, British Aid Worker,” slightly more circumspect phrasings seem to indicate that the latter is in play.
Consider, for example, the Guardian‘s reportage on the third ISIL “beheading” video. “Militants with the Islamic State jihadi group have released a video that appears to show the beheading of a British hostage, David Haines,” says the article. The use of “appears” appears to be a hedge against the obvious fact that the video does not actually show Haines’s beheading. The irony is that it we know the video doesn’t show Haines’s beheading because the only thing it appears to show vis-à-vis his execution (aside from what seems to be the very real result) is the beginning of a beheading (or perhaps a pantomime of such).
Other more subtle fabrications can be found in the articles themselves. “In the moments before his death, the 44-year-old Mr. Haines is forced to read a script, in which he blames his country’s leaders for his killing,” reports the New York Times, even though a) there is no telling from the video whether Haines was killed moments, hours, or days later; and b) though it is almost certainly the case that Haines was indeed compelled to read from a script, this is not a verifiable (i.e., from the video) matter of fact.
In some case the vagaries of the misreportage has led to individual media outlets promulgating conflicting information. On September 2, for example, the New York Times published a story claiming ISIL had posted a video “showing the second beheading of an American hostage in two weeks.” But five days later Times columnist David Carr, in reviewing the same video, notes that “only the beginning is shown and then there is a fade to black.”
Why such apparently conscious deviations from fact? The cynic would guess that it’s all about selling papers (or whatever is the equivalent in this journalistic epoch). Claiming that the videos actually show beheadings is more sensational—and thereby likelier to attract readers—than being confined to the slightly less lurid reality.
That the videos do not depict the actual murders has been discussed online, though almost never by any mainstream media outlet. One exception is the Times of London. Within a week of the release of the Foley video, the Times published an article claiming that “forensic analysis” indicates that Foley’s murder “was probably staged, with the actual murder taking place off-camera.”
The Arabic version of Al Jazeera went further, claiming (as reported by Al Arabiya) not only that the supposed executions were staged, but that Foley likely fabricated his video himself. (Al Jazeera later retracted its “inaccurate article.”)
While baseless speculation that Foley masterminded the video is not only irresponsible but also despicable, Al Jazeera was correct in pointing out that, as with the other videos in question, the video of Foley does not show his murder, only a staging of it. There seems vanishingly little doubt that Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and Henning were beheaded by ISIL. What is beyond all doubt is that, contrary to what has been widely reported, ISIL has not posted videos showing these beheadings.
In considering the media’s failure to report accurately on the content of the videos, the media apologist might offer a motivation contrary to the cynic’s. The misreporting may not be mercenary at all (says the apologist): it may simply be the case that, like the rest of us, the media in general revile ISIL and their acts of barbarism—and so why should we bother with scrupulous attention to detail? Does ISIL really deserve that level of care in how we report on them? The bottom line is that they’re murdering people, so who cares whether these videos actually show the murders of the hostages?
We should all care, and so we should all be disturbed by the media’s nearly universal failure to get the details right. The level of accuracy in reportage should not waver according to subject matter. Distorting details and claiming inferences as facts is work for propagandists and unscrupulous advertisers. Journalists should hold themselves to higher standards, even—and perhaps especially—in cases where our fellow journalists are so unanimously failing to do so that we could easily step over the bar without anyone’s noticing how low it’s been set.
(Note: The New York Times, Fox News, the Guardian, and CNN were all invited to comment for this article, but none responded.)