Journalism in the Crosshairs: The Islamic State’s exploitation of western media practice

Author: Kasun Ubayasiri, Griffith University


The Islamist terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) harnesses a sophisticated and nuanced media strategy to use and abuse journalists to deliver strategic outcomes favourable to ISIS. Basing its discussion on the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto, this paper examines how these killings were framed in ISIS media and how the organisation justifies journalist killings as a legitimate act of warfare. It argues that ISIS’s exploitation of the western press for strategic gains – and indeed the execution of journalists ­– may be circumvented though a paradigm shift in news reporting from superficial event-based reporting that repackages ISIS frames, to a more nuanced coverage that unmasks what strategic needs terrorists aim to fulfil through their violence.


Islamic State, Terrorism, War Reporting, ISIS, Dabiq, Beheading Videos

To cite this article

Ubayasiri, Kasun. “Journalism in the Crosshairs: The Islamic State’s Exploitation of Western Media Practice.” Fusion Journal, no. 11, 2017.

Introduction: Deliberate targeting of journalists in armed conflict

It is often argued in contemporary journalistic circles that the environment for war reporters has changed significantly since the Vietnam War. The common consensus is that, in the past four decades, journalists have gone from being witnesses to war to being deliberate and strategic targets.

Celebrated Vietnam War photographer Tim Page says “Charlie knew exactly who we were, and where we were going. I mean, you looked like a Christmas tree, with all the cameras and equipment on you. But, Charlie never took us out. We were protected, well, ‘protected’ might be the wrong word… we were countenanced”. Page argued that this “protection” was perhaps because foreign journalists “were making the propaganda they (the Viet Cong) needed, which was telling the truth” (Filer, 2009, p40). This ‘truth’, delivered to millions of western households in graphic, never seen before detail, crippled the allied government’s capacity to control media messaging about the war, adding a new dimension to foreign policy-making with respect to armed conflict. The power of the media to cut through government war rhetoric also shifted the focus on to journalists as strategic players in conflict. Over the years this too has shifted.

Australian war journalist Eric Campbell notes that within two decades, the sense of protection enjoyed during Vietnam had changed. The war in the former Yugoslavia, he argues, “was the advent of the armoured journalist(s)” (Filer, 2009, p40). Page also felt the shift. “When I was there (former Yugoslavia), I believe there was a five-hundred deutschmarks payment for snipers targeting journalists,” he said. (Filer, 2009, p40) The targeting of journalists has become nuanced, strategic and even ideologically justified in post September 11 Islamist conflicts.

On November 30, 2001, less than a month after the US invasion of Afghanistan, The Guardian reported Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had offered blood money for the murder of western journalists in Afghanistan. The Taliban leader had promised “a bounty of $50,000 (£30,000) to any Afghan gunmen who shoot a western journalist” (Traynor, 2001). More recently, in Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime enforced a media blackout in March 2013, banning international journalists from reporting or entering the country and detaining local journalists who tried to cover protests seeking an end to al-Assad’s rule (CPJ, 2012). The UK Telegraph reported pro-Assad Syrian businessman Fahim Saqr, in an interview with Syrian state television, had offered 10 million liras to any citizen who captured Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera reporters and handed them over to security forces loyal to President Assad (Sherlock,2013).

The threats to journalists in Syria escalated under ISIS who have taken the practice of targeting journalists to a new level. Their attacks are highly strategic and demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of western media practice. On the one hand this carefully crafted strategy permitted filmmaker Medyan Dairieh to produce a five-part VICE television documentary in early 2014 while embedded with ISIS (2014), and on the other, it saw foreign journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto kidnapped and ritualistically beheaded (in part as a macabre media spectacle for the western press and its consumers).

Terrorism as a communications process

The deliberate targeting, and perhaps more specifically the beheading, of journalists in the Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, must be viewed though a set of strategic needs specific to terrorism. At its core terrorism is a politico-military strategy which instils terror in a target population enabling the terrorist to exert psychological control over the “terrified”. In theory, this psychological control enables the terrorist to trigger a predetermined response in the target population which is of strategic importance to the terrorist. By attacking members within a target population,  terrorists are able to generate a fear psychosis among the wider target population. Typically this fear psychosis is strategically expected to erode confidence in the incumbent government and its ability to provide stability and security. A typical terrorist’s media narrative implies that the terror will end only once the incumbent government is pressured by the target population into acquiescing to terrorist demands (Hoffman, 1998; Jenkins, 1981; Wilkinson, 1974).

A typical terrorist media strategy, characterised as ‘propaganda by deed’, is usually comprised of attention-grabbing violence coupled with a media narrative that frames, conceptualises and  explains the violence. The attention gained though violent and grotesque acts of terror are typically designed to shock media consumers into noticing the terrorists’ narrative over the flood of media already screaming for the consumer’s attention. Once that attention is gained the terrorist must then use that opportunity to facilitate more subtle forms of psychological or media-cognitive manipulation; that is, if the media campaign is to deliver real political outcomes the militants crave. While a terrorist organisation may exercise some degree of control over the act of violence or the act of terrorism, the subsequent media manipulation presents a greater challenge. Such an understanding of terrorism, as a communication strategy where news coverage is a central strategic component, brings the implicit link between the press, journalists and the terrorist into sharp focus.

In September 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four aircraft in a single week, the latest in a series of hijackings that began two years earlier. Highlighting the strategic advantage of such a brazen terrorist media stunt, PFLP leader George Habash famously said “when we hijack a plane it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle…for decades world public opinion has been neither for nor against the Palestinians. It simply ignored us. At least the world is talking about us now…” (Der Stern, 1970, in Halsell, 1998). Journalist Gerald Seymour, who was among the throng of journalists gathered near Amman to cover the hijackers’ press conference, recalled “(in) 1970, it would have been believed that by foghorn statements, they (the PFLP) could convince the outside world – beyond the boundaries of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon – of the rightness of their cause…” (Seymour, 2006). The hijackings elevated the Palestinian conflict to centre stage where it became one of the most documented conflicts in contemporary history. The PFLP’s success at garnering media attention was not forgotten. On  September 5, 1972, the Black September Organisation (BSO) orchestrated a brutal attack at the Munich Summer Olympics deliberately taking advantage of the presence of hundreds of international journalist gathered in Germany to cover the Games.

Framing terrorism

Frame construction within journalistic communication is viewed as a series of narrative frames created and interpreted along a series of nodes (De Vreese, 2003 and 2004; D’Angelo and Kuypers, 2010), and in the case of terrorism, these nodes include the terrorist as message generator, news media as interpreter and re-packager, and news consumer as the final interpreter of a message originally designed for their benefit by terrorists, but ultimately modified though news media intervention. In his seminal work on frames, Entman argues “(t)o frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to define problems, diagnose causes that create the problem, make moral judgements by evaluating the causal agents, and offer remedies to the problem” (Entman, 1993, p52). With respect to terrorist communication these frames represent how the different actors generate salience.

In this context, terrorist narratives contain three primary frame sets: one is guilt transfer that presents the violence as an inevitable response to the aggression of others while involving spurious justification which frames the violence as just; another frame set has invulnerability and futility of resistance narratives that emphasise the potency of the terrorist and the impotency of the incumbent government (Tugwell, 1987); and a third set comprises true and legitimate representative themes that attempt to cast the terrorist as the legitimate representative of those they claim to represent, thus justifying reappropriation of their voice (Ubayasiri, 2015). A fourth narrative set, central to the terrorist military strategic needs, can be included in this cluster of frames: the victims of terrorism are presented as atypical of the target audience, where similarities between target audiences and the victims of the direct violence increase the psychological impact of  terrorism through an ‘ it could have been you’ narrative.

While the news media were central to the terrorist communication process in the past, terrorists in contemporary theatres are often able to produce their own media to some extent in the new media landscape: that is, where monopolies have been torn apart though a digital disruption in the new millennium, benefiting groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The digital Caliphate, Dabiq and the western press

The former Al Qaeda affiliated Salafi-Jihadist group, ISIS, proclaimed itself a Caliphate on June 28, 2014 – the first day of Ramadan 1435 – asserting its independence and pitting itself against Al Qaeda central command. The group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, gave a sermon in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, outlining the principles of the Islamic State. The centrality of digital platforms in carving out a virtual Caliphate alongside its territorial acquisitions in Iraq and Syria, has been discussed at length in Atwan’s seminal work on the subject Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Atwath, 2015). He notes the digital mastery of ISIS and how it has exploited social media platforms, the ‘dark web’, together with blockbuster-style videos and jihadi computer games, to spread its digital footprint.

In comprehending the ISIS media strategy it is vital to understand two core purposes and two fundamentally diverse target groups: potential loyalists and recruits they aim to woo and potential target populations in the West they aim to terrorise. ISIS employs three media strategies across these two objectives: one is the production of its own media and, in the case of its official organ, Dabiq, the use of selected journalists handpicked by ISIS. These ISIS media arms provide a vehicle to target potential sympathisers and ISIS watchers with material where ISIS ‘logically’ and calculatingly justifies its brutality. Another is the use of social media platforms to bait western press: this is aimed at penetrating conflict and compassion fatigue among western audiences who consume mainstream news – so as to deliver to them ISIS’s message of terror. Another strategy is exemplified by the “embedding” of journalist Medyan Dairieh with ISIS in the making of his documentary for VICE television (Dairieh, 2014). Dairieh’s reporting is used for a complex process of generating both fear and awe in an alternative media market inaccessible though the mainstream press or ISIS’s own niche publications.

This is where ISIS’s understanding of diverse media markets becomes clear. VICE is an edgy new media outlet that caters almost exclusively for the millennial youth market – an audience which has all but shunned traditional media outlets and who are natives of the social media landscape (Martinson, 2015). This is the very same audience ISIS needs to reach – young, impassioned, open to alternative thinking, less shockable and less likely to be corrupted by mainstream media. ISIS understands the value of having their story delivered under VICE branding and the value of negotiating controlled access by a well-respected Middle East conflict veteran (the VICE branding being a counterweight for any eventual off-narrative coverage in the final cut). Dairieh’s documentary has been viewed 15.5 million times on YouTube and it would be naive to believe that such exposure has not had an impact on the ISIS image in terms of elevating its prominence, notoriety and, potentially, even its allure.

The value of the three beheaded journalists compared to that of the VICE filmmaker must then be understood through ISIS’s strategic needs. Dairieh’s documentary into the world of the ‘exotic’, shadowy ISIS is able to penetrate an alternative media market that cannot be reached though acts of gore and violence alone – the boldness of the reportage almost guaranteeing it becomes must-see viewing. By contrast the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff and Goto are classic terrorism – acts of terror, covered by the mainstream media, justified through terrorist frames and designed to terrify a conservative media-consuming target population.

But it is Dabiq, launched in the same month the group announced its Caliphate, that provides us with a glimpse of ISIS exactly the way they wish to portray themselves, and for that reason it is vital to understanding ISIS and their media strategy. In arguing the legitimacy of its Caliphate, ISIS also presented its rationalisation for a military campaign claiming “Islam is the religion of the sword not pacifism” ( Dabiq, 2015, p20). It accused Islamic “apologists” of spreading the idea of Islam as “the religion of peace” simply to “flirt with the West”. It is here that ISIS established what we now recognise as its signature iconography of sword-wielding, bearded, unstoppable warriors. Dabiq argues peace to be subtext for “pacifism” and revels in the image of ISIS as a brutal, terrifying and irreconcilable force against democracy and the West – or what it calls “The Crusade” (Dabiq, 2015, p20).

Dabiq’s coverage, as with most ISIS media artefacts, engages with contemporary western media dialogue, and presents media coverage as a vital strategic tool in armed conflict. This notion of media as an instrument of war is then used to spuriously justify the killing of foreign ‘enemy’ journalists not as the murder of ‘impartial observers’ but as the murder of strategically important agents of the enemy. Dabiq wrote “(t)he war against Islam for the sake of tāghūt (rebel) is a media war as well as a military and intelligence struggle” (Dabiq, 2014b, p47).

ISIS’s complex media network suggests terrorists are no longer reliant on the press to provide meaning to their messages of terror. Terrorist groups no longer have to lure journalists to remote parts of the world, as PFLP did, or orchestrate high cost terrorist events for captive journalist audiences, as in the case of the Munich massacre. Instead they can harness new media platforms and technology, and upload self-produced media across a broad array of social media and cyber spheres, and deliver their media product to newsrooms across the world. While the relationship between the terrorist and the press have significantly changed over the past four decades, the press and perhaps its audience reach is not something that can be wholly discarded. The western media consumer, who is also one of the key target audience members ISIS attempts to influence with their terror, is still far more reachable though the traditional press than alternative and niche publications produced by ISIS and consumed by selected audiences.

The problem, as Al Jazeera lamented (2015) in a report headlined ‘You probably won’t read this piece about Syria’, is that few western publications report on distant wars largely because their war fatigued audiences have ceased to consume such coverage. What is germane to the conversation of dangerous journalism is how groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS view journalists, when the journalist is no longer capable of reaching media consumers with complex narratives that give ‘meaning’ to the conflict. In such a world where the journalist has been devalued as an interpreter of reality, they have become valuable targets for macabre terrorist propaganda. Simply put, the images of western journalists being beheaded by hooded terrorists is likely to generate far greater interests from both the western press and their audiences, than any other coverage of the war in Syria. And it is this shift in the journalist’s role that has made the journalism in the Middle East far more dangerous.

Ritualistic beheadings as strategy: Daniel Pearl

Islamist groups had been filming their beheadings well before the much publicised murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. In 1996 during the first Chechen war the captors of Russian soldiers, Yevgeny Rodionov and Andrey Trusov, filmed their beheadings (Taylor, 2014); in 1999 during the second Chechen war Mujahideen Salautdin Temirbulatov filmed the beheading of six Russian soldiers in Dagestan. However it was the killing of The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl that arguably reveals the true strategic potential of the tactic.

On January 23, 2002, Daniel Pearl, the Southeast Asia bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, was abducted by Jaish-i-Muhammad, a Kashmiri separatist movement allied to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. An image of Pearl, holding the day’s copy of the Pakistani newspaper, The Dawn, handcuffed and with a gun held to his head, was released by his captors along with a demand to free all terrorist suspects held in Pakistani custody. Nearly a month later, in February 2002, a videotape showing his gruesome murder was delivered to Sindh Province police by someone posing as a journalist. The New York Times reported that “Senior Pakistani officials said that he had been ‘brutally slaughtered,’ and indicated that his throat had been cut,” (Berringer and Jehl, 2002, p. A1).

Despite the proliferation of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, beheadings remain rare – the exception being Pearl in February 2002 and Polish geologist Piotr Stanczak in February 2009 (Roggio, 2009).

In their thought-provoking paper ‘The corpus of Daniel Pearl’ Grindstaff and DeLuca note “Daniel Pearl’s body, through torture, is transformed into raw material for multiple discourses of terrorism… In the videotape of his execution, Pearl’s body, a body that is forced to speak the words of terrorists, not his own beliefs, is made to confess…”. For Grindstaff and DeLuca this confession and the subsequent images of the murder are framed through nationalistic rhetoric. They argue the words Pearl is forced to utter are redundant “for the body itself testifies to its Americanness. The voice is the voice of an American, the accented English that of American English” and as such the torture and the brutal murder of Pearl serves the greater rhetorical purpose of articulating the symbolic destruction of Pearl’s world. “The tortured body, emptied of its own world, stripped of its own agency, is thus transformed into a rhetoric of power,” they note.

Perhaps Grindstaff and DeLuca’s most significant observation with respect to terrorist strategy and its impact on reporting conflict, however, is when they say “…Islamic fundamentalists take his body in order to make it speak for them, to make the body of Daniel Pearl into a text that testifies to the truth of their power, the truth of their grievances, the truth of their worldview.” The terrorist narrative is framed through classic guilt transfer and spurious justification built on a foundation of true and legitimate representative themes, where the execution is presented as a just and inevitable recompense for the death and persecution of Muslims.

Pearl was a high-profile journalist, the manner of his killing is calculated and brutal, and as such the killing itself becomes a choreographed media event staged for the western press. The ProQuest Database [1.The study acknowledges academic debate over the limitations of using databases in quantitative research (Weaver and Bimber, 2008) but argues the qualitative nature of the study mitigates many of the arguments raised in these studies including the incomplete nature of the databases.]  for the search term “Daniel Pearl” revealed 3584 entries for the three month period between January and March 2002: 3274 news reports and 310 wire feeds, including 294 entries in January, 2274 entries in February and 1016 in March. While the number of the articles themselves are not significant, the database provides an average of 61 stories reporting Pearl’s abduction between January 25, the first day of any significant coverage, and February 21; and an average of 128 reports between February 22 to March 1 reporting his death, indicative of media interest in his abduction and heightened interest in his murder. The filming of his murder and its subsequent release highlighted new strategic possibilities for creating a media spectacle in a remote corner of Pakistan, away from the world’s media attention and yet attracting widespread media coverage. The gruesome nature of the crime and the high profile of Pearl ensured widespread interest.

It has already been established that the target of terrorism is not merely the direct victim but also the audience the terrorist hopes to influence though their threats of violence, thus highlighting the importance of the terrorist’s need to present the victim as typical of members of the target population. “It could have been any of us,” wrote John Kifner in the New York Times of February 24, 2002, two days after the official announcement of Daniel Pearl’s death (Kifner, 2002).

The ISIS factor: the killing of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto

Unlike Al Qaeda’s access to limited media technologies in 2002, ISIS has a veritable smorgasbord of digital technologies it can harness to deliver its message, as demonstrated in the abduction and beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and Japanese video journalist Kenji Goto. These killings were three in a series of beheadings carried out by Mohammed  Emwazi, a British ISIS insurgent dubbed ‘Jihad John’ by the British press. Between August 19, 2014 and November 16, 2014, the Iraqi-born Emwazi, who migrated to the UK as a young child, beheaded two American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and, finally, American aid worker Peter Kassig. In January 2015 Emwazi also beheaded Japanese freelance video journalist Kenji Goto and private military contractor Haruna Yukawa.

The killings of the three journalists Foley, Sotloff and Goto are no more heinous than the killing of numerous other prisoners and abductees; but in a conversation about the dangers faced by journalists covering armed conflict, their deaths are particularly pertinent when discussing attacks on journalists as a strategic imperative.

James Foley: On November 22, 2012, Foley was abducted in north-western Syria while on assignment for The Global Post. Foley had been previously captured and held hostage by pro-Gaddafi forces in April 2011, along with American Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo. The trio were released by the Gaddafi regime 44 days later along with British journalist Nigel Chandler. Foley returned to Libya to witness the fall of the Gaddafi regime in October 2011.

In November 2012, Foley was en route to the Turkish border in north-western Syria with British journalist John Cantlie, when he was taken hostage by pro-Assad Shabeeha militants. Foley and Cantlie were reportedly working on a documentary of John Cantlie’s earlier abduction and dramatic rescue by the Free Syrian Army in July 2012. Five months after the abduction, in May 2013, The Global Post reported the “Syrian government (was) holding him in a detention center near Damascus” (Gelling, 2013). It is unclear how Foley then ended up in ISIS captivity, but on August 12, 2014, his captors, presumably ISIS, sent an email to Foley’s parents claiming he would be killed as a direct result of US air raids, and the US government’s refusal (unlike other western governments) to pay a ransom for his release (Global Post, 2014).

Ransoms have proved to be a lucrative financial boon for Middle East Islamist groups. In July 2014 The New York Times reported Al Qaeda and its affiliates had found a profitable market in hostage taking with western governments paying a staggering $125 million in ransom money. The New York Times said a number of countries including France, Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Germany had paid $91.5 million to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, $5.1 million to Shabab and $29.9 million to Al Qaeda in the Arab peninsula (Callimachi, 2014).

On August 19, 2014, ISIS uploaded a YouTube video titled ‘A Message to America’ showing a masked man speaking with a British accent, now believed to be Emwazi, beheading the journalist clad in orange overalls. On August 22, the Foley family released ISIS’s final August 12 email demand for the journalist’s release.

John Cantlie is still believed to be held captive by ISIS. While his fate is unclear, his purported byline has appeared in the ISIS magazine Dabiq.

Steven Sotloff: On August 4, 2013, Sotloff was kidnapped along with his fixer, near Aleppo, after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey. An orange-clad Sotloff was shown at the end of the Foley beheading video, with Emwazi threatening President Obama that Sotloff would be next if the US failed to halt its aerial attacks on ISIS targets. This video vision of Sotloff broke a virtual year-long media blackout which had been imposed by his family who feared he could be harmed if they went public (Carter and Fantz, 2014; Gladstone and Sinha, 2014).

On August 27, the journalist’s mother Shirley Sotloff released a 1.23 minute video plea directly addressing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, acknowledging him as the Caliph of the Islamic State and urging him to use his authority to spare her son’s life and follow the example set by “the Prophet Mohamed who protected people of the book”. A video showing Sotloff’s beheading surfaced on the web a few days later on September 2, 2014.

Kenji Goto: On October 24, 2014, Goto was captured by ISIS while entering Syria via Turkey to rescue Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa. (An ISIS interrogation video had surfaced on the web in August showing Yukawa in ISIS custody) (ABC, 2015). Goto had previously negotiated Yukawa’s release from the Free Syrian Army in April 2014; but a few months after his release Yukawa had once again returned to Syria to be captured by ISIS.

Goto, an experienced freelance video journalist covering conflict, refugees, and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, appeared alongside Yukawa in a video on January 20, 2015. In the video, ISIS demanded a ransom of $200 million and gave a 72 hour deadline for delivery.

On April 24, ISIS released a still image of Goto holding a picture of the decapitated remains of Yukawa along with an audio track of Goto speaking in English, relaying the ISIS demand, not for cash, but for the release of Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber awaiting execution in Jordan (Bignell, 2015). On January 29 Goto’s wife, Rinko Jogo, released a plea to his captors through the Rory Peck Trust, a UK-based organisation that supports freelance journalists (Farrell, 2015). On January 31, 2015, ISIS released a video showing Goto being beheaded.

 Dabiq : Framing the journalist beheadings

Recognising the strategic value of partisan press coverage in conflict is not new. Payne (2005) argued “(t)he media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war. This is because winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield”. However research suggests that it is too simplistic to discuss the media’s influence and potential for bias in binary terms of ‘allied’ or ‘enemy’. For example, in their analysis of 1820 stories from five American networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel) and Al Jazeera, Aday et al (2005) found that while coverage of the war in Iraq was somewhat sanitised “…the vast majority of stories on most American news networks, and Al Jazeera, were in fact objective” (Aday, Livingston and Hebert, 2005).

However, Dabiq’s coverage of the ISIS beheadings reveals a deep-seated attempt to strategically exploit this perception of western media bias. ISIS’s rationalisation of these three executions, in the group’s official magazine Dabiq, provides an insight into the spurious justification frames ISIS hopes to convey to its non-Arabic speaking followers in the West and, by extension, the western media that have taken to reporting the contents of the magazine.

The core strategy of ISIS is to polarise the world, or destroy what it calls the ‘grey zone’, an extension of US President George W Bush’s “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” interpretation of geo-political fault-lines. Dabiq’s justification of Sotloff’s execution is a classic example of this polarisation narrative that refuses to acknowledge ‘grey’. The magazine wrote, “The case of Steven Sotloff contains a direct refutation against those who portray western journalism and humanitarian aid as purely innocent, for this man was a Jew and a citizen of the Jewish state”. Dabiq further argued his ‘guilt’ by stating that he reported for “…crusader media including TIME,National Interest, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Long War Journal, he also ‘freelanced’ for two Jewish publications – the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post,” (Dabiq , 2014b, p47).

This claim of persecution by western media is exacerbated by the practice of western military embedding. Embedding provides a convenient narrative for ISIS to imply guilt by association and strip the journalist of any claim on ‘fourth estate’ neutrality. ISIS exploits the working relationship between the press and the military to argue embedded journalists are an extension of the US war effort and not, as the Geneva Convention states, non-combatants. In their justification of Foley’s execution, Dabiq wrote “James Wright Foley was an American who spent a large part of his career travelling exclusively to war zones embedded with the American military at war with Muslims. He had entered Afghanistan and Iraq numerous times from 2008 to 2010, during the ongoing crusades,” (Dabiq, 2014a, p37). The magazine also wrote “his work entailed documenting the wars through the crusaders’ eyes, reporting all that which serves their foreign policy and agenda whilst withholding any news that could expose their evils”.

James Foley’s embedding is no secret. In a guest university lecture in 2011, Foley spoke on the limitations of embedded journalism, lamenting what he called “the screen”. “There’s always a screen literally of US armour … separating you from the population,” he said, explaining that he wanted to penetrate the military narrative and get closer to the conflict. He also spoke about his experience covering the Libyan revolution and being embedded from the rebel side. Such complexities ‘in the grey zone’ are ignored by Dabiq’s narrative in favour of convenient binary-polar categorizations.

Their own distrust of western media embedding notwithstanding, ISIS however saw no hypocrisy in accepting Dairieh’s request to embed with ISIS cadre for three weeks in order to produce his five part documentary (Calderone, 2014). A British-Palestinian film maker who graduated from Baghdad University and Armaris University in Turkey (Rory Peck Trust, 2015), Dairieh was not as identifiably ‘western’ as Foley and Sotloff, and was a genuine heavy weight in the Middle East conflict theatre. But the fact ISIS was able to turn a blind eye to Dairieh being employed by VICE owned in part by Rupert Murdoch, Disney and Jewish billionaire Sir Martin Sorrell, and the fact that he is based in the UK, speaks volumes about their self-serving agenda.

Western media reproduction of ISIS frames

The execution of Foley, Sotloff and Goto suggests three ISIS strategies. One is the use of macabre drama to sustain western media coverage; another, the use of a British killer with a clear British accent to suggest the war is no longer in the Middle East and, as such, ignorable by the western media consumer; and yet another strategy employed is the inference that the killings are a direct result of western government policy backed by a sympathetic media. There is significant evidence that all three of these narratives were reproduced by the western press.

Western press coverage of Foley’s beheading video was mixed. Traditional ‘broadsheets’ exercised some caution and filtered coverage while the ‘tabloid’ end of the press spectrum gorged on the violence. The US’s fifth largest circulating newspaper, the New York Post, published the most confronting image of any newspaper, showing the knife flush against Foley’s throat moments before he was beheaded. Its News Corp stable-mate, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, ran a similar image taken moments before the knife actually touched Foley’s neck. News Corp broadsheet the London-based The Times, was far more restrained in its image choice, but still showed an image of Foley kneeling on the ground in front of his masked executioner prior to him brandishing the knife. In Australia, the Fairfax group claimed the moral high-ground, criticising News Corp’s decision to publish the graphic images. The Sydney Morning Herald online reported the backlash against News Corp’s decision to publish a series of confronting images in its US, UK and Australian newspapers, but did not share with its readers the reasoning behind its own decision not to publish the photos. The report however did provide a link to a screen shot of the New York Post’s front page. The Sydney Morning Herald’s stable-mate in Melbourne, The Age, published a tighter crop of an image similar to that of The Times showing Foley and his executioner but not the knife. The macabre images were ultimately far more successful in penetrating audience fatigue and in delivering a simple and effective message of terror.

The front-pages referred to ISIS as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’, to Emwazi as the ‘British Butcher’ and used terms such as ‘gruesome’ and ‘grotesque’ to describe the video. While these reactions are perhaps natural from an editorial perspective, it is characteristic of the mainstream media’s lack of understanding of, or dismissal of, ISIS’s strategic aim to project itself precisely as the terrifying, ruthless, barbaric and irreconcilable organisation the media outlets demonise them as. ISIS revels in the notoriety and terror they inspire through the use of this imagery and language; it is not that they fear such framing but, on the contrary, they aim to dominate western media feeds with such images of terrifying knife-wielding terrorists. Such a strategic need is clear from how ISIS portrays themselves in their own media.

The use of a killer with a distinct British accent is symbolic of an enemy within. Repeated references by The Sun and the Daily Mirror to Emwazi as ‘The Beatle’ and ‘John’, alluding to his nom de plume ‘Jihadi John’ (Usborne, 2015), further elevated the idea of the notion and threat of ‘home grown terrorism’.

In all the videos connected with the killing of the three journalists, the executioner Mohammed Emwazi directs his dialogue to both political leaders and the general public. Deploying a classic guilt transference frame, the alleged refusals of US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to co-operate with ISIS are used to justify the violence visited on the  journalists. Emwazi’s dialogue also simultaneously blames citizens of both countries, saying their indifference and their failure to enact change have cost their fellow countrymen their lives. The strategy is typical of terrorist narratives where the violence is targeted to the viewing public who are then expected to lose faith in their elected leaders, thus exerting political pressure on the incumbent government to capitulate. Media coverage, around the August 20, 2014 for instance – including that day’s issue of New York’s Daily News refer to ISIS “taunting Obama”plays directly into the terrorists’ hands (Daily News, 2014).

Such guilt transfer is particularly important to the terrorist narrative. While the terrorist, arguably through necessity, is forced to use such abhorrent violence to gain audience attention, they are equally desperate to frame that violence through specific guilt transfer narratives, where the horror and the brutality of the crime is shifted to incumbent governments. Dabiq’s coverage of Goto’s killing ends with “let his citizens know that the sword of the Khilāfah has been unsheathed against the pagans of Japan by Allah’s might and power,” (Dabiq, 2015, p4). Foley is forced to renounce his American identity and to declare the US government’s impotence before he is killed and his ‘American world’ symbolically destroyed. His final words “Now all I can say is that I wish I were from some other country whose government actually cares about its citizens. I guess all in all, I just wish I wasn’t American” ( Dabiq, 2014a, p40).

This tactic of guilt transference often pays dividends: where the frames deployed by ISIS, both through the execution videos and Dabiq, find their way into mainstream media coverage. For example, on August 21, 2014, The Age in Australia wrote:

“Just hours after the United States announced it would begin air strikes on militants in the north of Iraq, a propaganda video from the Islamic State emerged online with the warning: ‘We will drown you in blood’.

“That was on August 17 and by Tuesday, after more than 70 air strikes from US fighter jets and drones – launched, President Barack Obama said, to protect besieged minorities trapped by Islamist militants as well as its own strategic interests in Iraq – the Islamic State appeared to have made good its threat.

“Another propaganda video appeared overnight, this one showing the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley, in retaliation, his executioner says, for the air strikes in Iraq.” The Age (2014)

The news article, whether unwittingly or not, reproduced the guilt transference ‘cause and effect’ narrative Foley’s killers were hoping for, transferring the blame for violence against Foley onto President Obama and his airstrikes. Such coverage makes journalists valuable assets for terrorists for all the wrong reasons.

Conclusion: A paradigm shift in reporting

There is no argument that the beheading of a foreign journalist is news; however, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how the western media reports such news, if we wish to remove the target from journalists’ backs in Syria and similar theatres. For as long as ISIS sees a strategic value in killing journalists, they will continue to do so, and the cycle of ‘beheading-coverage-payoff’ will be repeated over and again.

In their seminal book Elements of journalism Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) claim journalism’s first obligation is to the ‘truth’. Kovach and Rosenstiel’s interpretation of journalistic truth is hardly a naive empiricist truth but a deep pragmatic and practical truth obtained through a careful evaluation of all available information. Ward argues that “modern journalism ethics was built upon the twin pillars of truth and objectivity” (2001, p71) and, while he concedes the universality of these twin concepts are frequently attacked by theorists, he maintains that within journalism practice it is “nonsensical to question truth and objectivity” (2001, p71). Ward argues that theoretical attacks on journalistic objectivity and the notion of truth are the result of journalistic practices in which objectivity is misinterpreted as clinical or detached observation, where the journalist becomes a passive observer and mere transmitter of information. In Ward’s view, journalistic objectivity requires engagement and pragmatism “as a means to the goals of truth, fair judgement and ethical action” (Ward, 2008, p77).

Pragmatically, objective reportage of beheadings neither advocates clinical and passive reportage devoid of emotion nor promotes emotive language for the sake of its ‘shock-value’. Instead, such an approach encourages the true and accurate reporting of facts, and also demands coverage of the broader subtexts and undertones of the action. This measured and more analytical reportage delivers ‘truth’, while side-stepping the trap of reproducing glib interpretations pre-packaged and delivered to news rooms as part of terrorist ‘spin’. A pragmatically objective position actively exposes the spurious nature of terrorist justification and rigorously scrutinises how terrorists attempt to generate fear though brutal acts of violence. Changes to coverage based on this approach need not be vast. Exposing ISIS’s media strategy and disarming it can be executed through something as fundamental as a shift in editorial image selection. Instead of reproducing frightening and titillating images of journalists moments from death – as intended by terrorists for their tactical advantage – a pragmatically objective editor, aiming to expose the strategic reasons for the killing, can instead run a file photo of the journalist accompanied by text focusing on their career and explaining the publication’s refusal to be a vehicle for ISIS propaganda. The approaches a newsroom might take are numerous and each one is capable of exposing ISIS rhetoric rather than promoting the organisation’s strategically loaded spurious justifications and tactical needs.

Such a paradigm shift in newsroom thinking could be similar to other harm minimisation approaches already adopted in Australian newsrooms. Such practices already in use include limiting details in suicide coverage to avoid the Werther effect, language selection in mental health matters to avoid stigmatisation and even limits on gratuitous detail in crime reporting to avoid  perverting the course of justice or endangering public safety.


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About the Author

Dr Kasun Ubayasiri is the Program Director of the Bachelor of Journalism at Griffith University, and a former Sri Lankan journalist. His research forces on media and armed conflict. He is a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research.


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