Food for Thought: DAESH and Media Self Censoring

This is a guest post by Eric Zerkel, a former student of mine and journalist the The Weather Channel, in response to my post “Why is DAESH / Islamic State Executing via Decapitation?

Interesting, but I think you’re actually missing a potential side of the argument here. (Also, not to be a stickler, but media coverage extends well beyond television, and therefore is a lot more complicated than this.)

“This is interesting because MacGinty lives and works in the UK, where the government can, and does, censor news coverage, and thus US news coverage of Islamic State (IS, aka DAESH, ISIS, and ISIL) stood out in stark relief to what he sees back home.”

While I get what you’re saying here, this seems to suggest that the U.S media isn’t censoring the news, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

I don’t think Americans have seen uncensored images of war and violence from the American media since Vietnam (partly because of our government’s control over access) but also because of the FCC and the trickle down effect it has on editors and their willingness to use imagery that is more reflective of the gruesome reality of said war and violence.

For instance, on the most basic level, most news outlets pay for access to photo wire services (like the Associated Press/Getty/Reuters..etc.) which provide an uncensored stream of images from war zones and disaster zones and such. Yet, you, the consumer of news, likely won’t see a large portion of these because of dead bodies, gore…etc.

When I search for “Boko Haram” in AP Images, for instance, I get a handful of bloody photos of bodies strewn about from a recent bus bombing in Potiskum, Nigeria, but on a CNN article (Link here:www.cnn.com/2015/02/24/world/nigeria-explosion/ ) all I get as a consumer of the news is a single photo of burned out vehicles.

Even at The Weather Channel we use this sort of discretion. During natural disasters, Typhoon Haiyan being the deadliest in recent memory, I sifted through hundreds of wire images to build slideshows and had to cautiously look for, and omit, photos with dead bodies.

Same thing goes for the Islamic State executions. I watched NBC Nightly News after the first public beheading and remember hearing Brian Williams describe the gruesome nature of the act, but then he said something to the effect of “we obviously won’t be showing that on here.”

From my POV there seem to be sort of four different levels of media censorship: state-run (North Korea), Omission (selectively deciding NOT to cover a story for the “greater good”) (U.K.), hybrid-censorship (covering violent news, but in the least gory way possible (U.S.)) and unfiltered news (which speaks for itself).

All that being said, I don’t want to speculate here, but I’d be curious to know if there’s been any research done on the political impact of terror attacks in countries with different forms of media censorship. My gut says that if people in America were a little more desensitized to gore we would react in a different manner, but I don’t have any research to substantiate that assumption.

On a different level, all of this really doesn’t matter because even if you don’t show it on television you can seek out and find the video on the internet. BREAK and other sites carry the executions. (There’s a reason that the Islamic State has a youtube page, too). But that’s a completely different discussion involving internet censorship which is much more involved on the government level than an editorial level.

Anyhow, food for thought, Will. 

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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