Naming the hostage: how should we cover the Isil murders?

Steven Sotloff (left) and James Foley, the two Americans murdered in Syria
Steven Sotloff (left) and James Foley, the two Americans murdered in Syria

Steven Sotloff, a second American hostage of the sorry fantasists of Isil, has been murdered, we read this morning. And a third man, a Briton, is currently held and will, we are warned, be the next to die.

The question of how to report these disgusting acts of propaganda is a difficult one for news organisations. Do we show them unflinchingly, to lay bare the evil of the perpetrators, or by doing so are we playing into their hands? I don’t  know the answer, although I have my opinion.

No British paper has chosen to name the British hostage. The Foreign Office have not identified him, although a name, purportedly his, is printed onscreen in the Isil video and has been widely printed in American and other media. That name is available easily online, but there are two excellent reasons not to print it. One is that the man’s relatives have asked that he not be named. That should be enough all on its own: if the family of a man facing death ask for something, and it is in our power to give it easily, at little cost to ourselves, give it. I don’t know if withholding his name will improve his chances of survival; the family appears to believe that it could, and so if it it does nothing more than make them feel a little better and more hopeful, then we should do it.

Equally importantly, Isil clearly do want this name out there. And the counterpoint of the first reason is: when a murdering propagandist wants something, don’t give it to them, if you can possibly avoid it. So keep this man’s name out of print and broadcast for as long as possible.

It doesn’t matter whether the name is available elsewhere: as your parents told you, just because the other boys were doing it doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to join in.

There’s more to “when a murdering propagandist wants something, don’t give it to them” than not publishing the name, though. They want exposure, and it’s hard not to give them that, I realise. News organisations still have to, and want to, report the news, and it’s still the case that if the public wants to see the horrifying images, then it will buy the newspaper or watch the channel that will show them. There is a complex discussion of journalism ethics to be had about what the right, the moral, thing to do is.

I’ve written in the past about how to cover mass shootings, which I think is a very comparable thing: psychologists say that “saturation-level news coverage of mass murder” causes further mass murders, in an epidemiological sense. Presumably there are some equivalences, some similar mental processes, involved in the decision to go and kill people in Iraq and Syria and the decision to go do the same in a school or an office. So it would amaze me if the same psychologists wouldn’t warn that saturation coverage of beheadings increase the likelihood of future events.

That’s not the only consideration in deciding whether or not to show the images and video, and how to show them, of course. But it’s one worth considering. As my colleague John McTernan points out, when it comes to ransoms, hostage-takers behave like economic rational actors, disproportionately targeting citizens of countries which pay ransoms, rather than those of countries (such as the UK and US) which do not. Since these murderers also want publicity, it is sensible to suggest that they behave rationally in that case too: giving them the publicity that they want will encourage them to do it again.

Whatever the right answer is, it is too late to help Mr Sotloff and James Foley. And it may be too late for the unnamed British man. But whatever the right answer is, it is certainly right not to name him until his family says we should.

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