How much information do we need from the darkest places of the world? That's one of several questions posed in "The Pen and the Sword: Reporting ISIS," a provocative paper by Paul Wood, a BBC correspondent and 2015 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School.
It details ISIS kidnappings, including one with grim specificity, and his own reporting on conflict in Syria. Along the way, he raises difficult questions about a journalist's duty. Is too much information unnecessary to make your basic point? Can neutrality be a mistake when there may not be two sides to a story? Should one offer rallying cries to your audience to take action?
Is there a tricky line between reporting and propaganda?
"What was our responsibility as journalists?" he wonders at one point as he recalls his reporting in Syria. At a clinic, he saw one of the most awful sights he'd experienced: an 11-year-old boy whose "jaw had been ripped off by a sniper bullet. He was still conscious, sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Everything below the nose was gone. There were just bloody shreds hanging down. He stared at me, eyes wide with shock, before a nurse pulled a curtain across. We thought about trying to organize a medical evacuation but the boy died the next day. "
Yes, the war has killed lots of children. But he could not get out of his mind how this child had been conscious and looking directly at Wood. "The story I wrote later about the boy was (I hoped) a simple, factual account, but it still seemed like an argument for intervention. Writing with that intent, you risk becoming a propagandist as much as a reporter."
But, he then wondered, "If our stories were not meant to move the outside world to act, what were we doing? Cynically providing a titillating spectacle for the viewers, a vicarious thrill, the pornography of violence? "TV can either facilitate 'the internationalization of conscience,' as Michael Ignatieff, has written, or it is just 'promiscuous voyeurism.'"
What about calling ISIS a nihilistic death cult or simply "evil terrorists?" Editing an interview Wood did with a Taliban commander, somebody back at Wood's shop insisted on ditching a question about the justice system, which he felt inspired an interesting answer, for one about killing civilians. The latter "produced an entirely predictable denial."
The story hadn't become one of doing "challenging journalism," an honorable thing in his mind, "but of demonstrating appropriate moral outrage. We had to show which side we were on. The people we are fighting, it seems, are always 'terrorists.' This makes me nervous."
Why? "A shift in tone here, a change of line there, and you are editorializing as much as reporting. This does not mean you have to imply moral equivalence where there is none. It would be absurd to report 'two sides' of the question, say, of sex slavery. Rape is rape and murder is murder."
Of course, there's the omnipresent reality that partisanship brings its own perils. After the Paris terrorist attacks on the music club, "much coverage presented a caricature: ISIS was mad or bad. Perhaps ISIS is both but such reporting does not tell you, for instance, why ISIS still has support in Mosul or Ramadi."
He concludes with the complexity of the whole matter, about how one can err and avoid a key issue when talking about truth achieving the right result "in the long run."
What do you do if the story you're about to break might actually help the "terrorists?"
"If you do anything other than that, you’re a propagandist. But then you make a number of compromises with that approach of radical truth telling – you hold back news of a kidnapping to save a life, you avoid showing too much of an ISIS propaganda film. Jihadi John told the hostages they were all soldiers in a war, no matter that they had not come to Syria with a gun. There was an information war; journalists were on the other side."
As his piece reminds, ISIS does not view any journalist as neutral. It's underscored in the very harrowing case study of a kidnapping of a Danish journalist he details.
The report ends with one final question: "Faced with evil, should we even try to be?"