Is the mainstream media doing ISIS a favor?

An image grab taken from a video published by media branch of ISIS on January 3, 2016, purportedly shows an English-speaking ISIS fighter speaking at an undisclosed location before executing five men from the Syrian city of Raqqa. (AFP)

Early in January, ISIS released yet another of its infamous propaganda videos. As with every one of its clips, the fact that relatively few people watched it did not prevent millions from finding out about it in detail, as the press was soon at hand to disseminate the information.

The gory yet expertly produced clip eleven minute clip featured wild warnings flung at the UK, as well as the inevitable beheading of prisoners. The shock value was increased by yet another British man spewing diatribes at his country of origin (remember Jihadi John?), and an English-speaking boy sounding off in front of the camera.

The slick pitch resonated with Western editors in a way most PR professionals can only dream off. Like seasoned public relations strategists, the fanatics in ISIS’s extensive media arm know how to push all the right buttons: Fear and bewilderment (They are amongst us, are we safe?), violence (the obligatory executions), and shock (Even the children are jihadists in Syria!). With the use of a masked Brit as a narrator, they managed to give a video from Syria a strong domestic angle.

It did not take long for the video to make headlines. Articles containing a wide range of quotes, lengthy descriptions and screen shots of the video, will have led to a round of high fives in the ISIS media department in Raqqa. To maintain journalistic integrity, the writers often added background and expert opinion to their piece. There wasn’t much else they could have done to salvage their professional pride after having been told to write the story.

The problem lies not with the journalists, who are capable craftsmen of their trade. It lay with the decision of papers to run with the story at all. Unfortunately, the Western press is filled with propaganda by the terror group. Its neat press releases sell well after having been repackaged into news items. In the competitive and cash-strapped era of online news, ISIS gets you clicks, which then translate into advertising revenue.

Any criticism over giving a murderous bunch of extremists what they crave most - attention - can be easily dismissed by citing the public’s right to know. Yet that that is a facetious argument. The public around the world does indeed need to know what drives ISIS, what are the factors that support its existence and what can be done to get rid of the group. It does not need to be fed images that project the terrorists’ strength far beyond its actual means, and which will result both in new recruits and knee-jerk reactions that do more harm than good.

The reality is that ISIS is getting weaker, it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq and it is trying to compensate by creating fear and anger with its shock and awe media tactics. Why go along with it?

In an effort to boost flagging revenues, the Western press has entered a Faustian pact with the ISIS public relations machine that works for both sides. News outlets have always sensationalized, its par of the course and to some extent legitimate as a way to grab peoples’ interest. In the end of the day, newspapers and TV stations tend to be commercial entities that need to stay afloat.

But when dealing with a terrorist outfit that combines modern media savvy with medieval brutality and archaic beliefs, a little more awareness and self-restraint from the press would be in order.

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