How social media contribute to ‘remote-control terrorism’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

NEW YORK — Tracking “remote control terrorism,” showing climate change’s impact and following readers’ shifts to mobile devices were panel highlights at last weekend’s Columbia Journalism School reunion.

Top reporters stressed the so-called Islamic State’s ability to innovate, forge social media connections and take “credit” for terrorist attacks it didn’t plan.

NPR counterterrorism expert Dina Temple-Raston noted that while U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are a “matrix,” ISIS keeps experimenting and improving their outreach to alienated youths.

“Don’t over-ascribe associations” between ISIS and every case of violence, she said. “But they’re very careful to take credit” for such incidents.

Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner expanded on that. “An obsessive focus on ‘who gives the orders’” for a terrorist attack misses the point, she said. You can find “inspiration online.” You don’t have to go to Yemen for training.

“The remote-control terrorist” is a new phenomenon, said Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. With social media, today’s teenagers can have “one-on-one intimacy” with ISIS recruiters without the need for face-to-face contact.

A former Al Jazeera English producer and host, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said that framing the war against terror as a “clash of civilizations plays into ISIL’s hands. Two to three weeks of incessant texting” can convince alienated youths to adapt terrorism as a way of defending their culture.

It’s not easy being green

Climate change is a concept that’s hard to grasp. But its effects are real, and ClimateWire editor John Fialka tries to deliver the message through stories that use popular-culture references.

An example this week cites “Game of Thrones”: “As fans well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.”

Former Associated Press environmental journalist Dina Cappiello said the topic is underreported because “politics dictates where the coverage goes.” Now with a public relations firm, she said 2016 presidential voters will focus on health care, the economy and their own jobs — not on the environment.

Serving the mobile audience

How to give time-starved mobile device clickers both what they need to know and what they want to know?

Lydia Polgreen, New York Times deputy international editor, said her paper’s “future lies in figuring out what 20 stories each reader wants to know.”

She said the Times hopes to provide a personal and a general experience. The challenge is how to preserve the serendipity of riffling through the paper and finding interesting stories about random topics — while giving them what they need to know.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

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Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Islamic State

The Washington Post today fronts a horrifying story by Liz Sly showing how the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime are pulling the strings of the Islamic State. We will be paying for the hubris of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era for many years to come.

As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Phil Balboni of GlobalPost talks about James Foley

This past Friday we did something unusual on “Beat the Press” — we ran an extended interview with Phil Balboni, the president and CEO of GlobalPost, about his organization’s efforts to save the life of correspondent James Foley. Those efforts failed, and the Islamic State, the terrorist group that had been holding him, recently released a video of Foley’s beheading.

In the interview, conducted by Emily Rooney, Balboni comes across as compassionate and utterly devastated. It’s riveting television, yet it’s painful to watch. But watch.

The James Foley video and bearing witness to evil

James Foley
James Foley

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?

It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:

Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.

I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”

I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.

It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.

At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:

For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.

And here is an interview with GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott, talking about Foley on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.

Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.

Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.