In the coming days, journalists around the world will be making critical decisions about the words, images and sounds they will share with the public about the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
I suspect that for most people outside of Iran, his was an unfamiliar name until this week, so the bulk of what they know about him is what they are learning about right now in light of America’s actions.
Depending on who you read/watch, he is a terrorist or prayerful servant of his people.
Here are some considerations for journalists as they continue covering this emerging story.
The ‘assassination’ question
Some newsrooms have used the word “assassination” in conjunction with the death of Soleimani. That word, assassinate, is loaded. The Associated Press Stylebook says assassination is “the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack.” The key word in that definition is “murder.”
As the AP explains why it is not using the word “assassinate” to describe the attack that killed Soleimani, it points out that if journalists use that word, they are saying that the United States acted illegally. Since 1976 this has been U.S. law: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The wording is from Executive Order 12333, the first version of which was signed by President Gerald Ford. Subsequent versions were signed by presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The executive order remains in effect today.
AP says the argument for not using the word “assassinate” depends on whether Soleimani was leading attacks on U.S. forces, which the Trump administration says he was. The AP explains, “Soleimani, however, was a military leader. If he was leading forces against the United States, under the international laws of war as enunciated in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, he and his forces could be considered legitimate battle targets during any actual war or armed conflict, declared or undeclared.”
The word has already found its way into the 2020 political conversation. On Sunday’s morning talk shows, Pete Buttigieg would not use the word to describe the attack but Sen. Elizabeth Warren was less restrained. “Donald Trump ripped up an Iran nuclear deal that was working. He’s repeatedly escalated tensions. Now he’s assassinated a senior foreign military official,” she tweeted.
Early Monday, the News York Times’ “The Daily” headlined the Monday podcast “The Assassination of General Qassim Sulemiani.” But by mid morning the headline changed:
I recommend that journalists avoid the word “assassination” to describe how America killed Soleimani except when it is part of a direct quote. If you choose to use that word, then you should explain why you made that decision.
I think the less judgmental and opinionated word “killed” is appropriate, for now, reserving the use of “assassinate” for direct quotes.
Choosing video and images
Journalists also will be making lots of decisions in the coming days about how much protest video they will show. Tens of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets Sunday. The stunning size of those marches makes them newsworthy. American audiences need to see those marches to understand the depth of fury over the general’s death. In America and around the world, thousands also marched protesting the attack. Those images are powerful tools for the Iranian government to raise global opposition to America’s military action.
The Iranian Parliament stood up Sunday and chanted “Death to America” over and over. Those of us of a certain age flash back to hearing that repeated chant when Iranians took over the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979. For 444 days, the news carried reports that included that incessant chant.
Journalists will have to make decisions about whether and how often they will post or air the video of the explosive attack itself. There are some gruesome aftermath photos including what may be (emphasis on “may be”) his severed left hand and the well-known red ring he wore. Iranian TV showed it repeatedly, close-up. The (U.K.) Sun posted the closeup of the hand in color. (Here is a link to the page: graphic image warning.)
Many of the most circulated images of Soleimani depict him as a prayerful man with a gentle smile. There are no images circulating of him planning attacks or firing weapons, as you will recall media often used to illustrate Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Iranian TV showed a split screen of the funeral and video of Soleimani reading poetry about departed friends. When a New York Times journalist, Farnaz Fassihi, shared that same video Jan. 3, critics said she was soft-pedaling Soleimani’s past. She responded, “Folks attacking me for sharing this video: It’s called reporting. It’s not an endorsement or sympathy. I share whatever info I get for all to see. That’s all.” (Indeed, the Times has a constantly updated page covering developments in Iran.)
My recommendation is for journalists to avoid blanket bans on graphic images. However, use them only when the image explains, clarifies, proves or disproves information that is in dispute.
As far as possible, put images such as flag burnings and effigies in context. Explain how often the scenes occur, who was involved and whether the protest was staged expressly for the media. Context can also come in the form of sequencing images.
High wide shots of crowds give context to the size of a protest while close-ups provide the emotions of the moment. Be especially careful to apply the same editorial rigor to informational graphics as you would to editing words, images, sound and video.
Always consider alternatives
Journalists should also consider whether to publish/air the cartoon image of a bloody Donald Trump that a hacker posted on the Federal Depository Library Program website. While the hacking of a federal government website is certainly newsworthy, particularly when the attack causes a disruption or compromises government records, publishing the hacker’s message rewards the criminal act with the publicity the hacker seeks.
An alternative might include blurring part of image or describing the image in as much detail as necessary to understand the contents of the attack. If the hacking leads to a specific government response, such as military action, then there are greater reasons to show the offending image because the image itself becomes the focus of news coverage.
Whatever you decide, explain your decisions and decision-making process to the public. Remember, too, that just because you do not publish an image or video one day does not mean you never will. Conversely, just because you publish and image today does not mean you will use it repeatedly. Each use is a new decision and requires a new justification.
The words we use matter. The images and sounds we air and publish will define how our audiences understand or misunderstand a dire moment in history. Your reporting can inflame just as it can inform.
Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @atompkins.