Syria flag
Credit: By Freedom House on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Propaganda videos released by ISIS militants showing the murder of hostages are among the most brutal the world has seen in recent years, and decisions about how and where to use this information in the news are some of the toughest calls editors will have to make.

This weekend saw the release of another video announcing the murder of a fifth Western hostage, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, a US aid worker previously known as Peter Kassig before his conversion to Islam.

As it has developed, the war in Syria has seen the media become a focal point for violence as well as propaganda. James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the first two victims of filmed executions sent to global news organisations this year, were both journalists and the FBI recently warned journalists they had become "desirable targets" in the region.

At the recent News Xchange conference in Prague, journalist Khazar Fatemi highlighted the danger to those reporting on the conflict, revealing that she chose not to travel with her passport and press card on a recent trip to Syria and Iraq.

"I don't want to be remembered as a journalist in a jumpsuit on my knees," she said.

But how can news outlets cover the horror of these events while ensuring they too do not become an amplifier for propaganda?

A News Xchange panel from CNN, Al Jazeera and France 24 discussed some of the challenges faced by editors.

Human dignity or duty to report?

Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, noted that editorial policy on the coverage of such events "has to evolve".

You can't just have a one-size-fits-allTony Maddox, CNN
When American journalist James Foley was killed by ISIS in August, CNN's broadcast featured stills from the video while the newsreader gave a description of what the full footage showed.

By contrast, when the outlet broke the news of the fourth execution video, showing Alan Henning's murder, it described the video but did not show images from it, instead screening photographs of Henning doing volunteer aid work in Syria.

Consideration for the victim's dignity was "very, very important," said Maddox, but at times he believed there was an editorial justification in showing the images.

"On the first Foley murder, I think everyone was shocked," said Maddox.

"And he was an American hostage. At this point America's position with regard to ISIS... and Syria was rather muddled, and it did help to clear the mind as far as US policy was concerned and push the debate forward."

Because of this significance, Maddox said, there was "no doubt" that CNN needed to show images from the Foley video.

The second video, showing the killing of American journalist Steven Sotloff, made it clear the murders were becoming a pattern, he said, while the third, in which aid worker David Haines died, was significant because the victim was British and "they were discussing it in UK parliament".

But with each video, Maddox said, CNN showed "less and less" images or footage, and by the time the Henning video was released the outlet "decided not to show anything at all because it was clear at that point that they [ISIS] wanted us to".

"By then the editorial purpose had already been served," he explained.

However he added that for CNN, and for many other outlets around the world, coverage of ISIS was "rightly an evolving process. You can't just have a one-size-fits-all".

Consider the motive

Given the scale of its audience in the Middle East, Al Jazeera is a key target for ISIS, whose videos are not only a tool for shock and fear, but for recruitment.

What everyone in our newsroom noticed was that they made this video for media, not for their own purposeIbrahim Helal, Al Jazeera
"For our audience, we understand very well that ISIL would like us to reward extremism more than everyone else," said Ibrahim Helal, director of news at Al Jazeera Arabic.

"They expect us to show [the full video]."

The ISIS videos are arguably the most sophisticated propaganda weapon the world has seen, using methods borrowed from action films and video games.

Speaking of the Foley video, Helal said: "What everyone in our newsroom noticed was that they made this video for media, not for their own purpose."

As Al Jazeera became keenly aware of the motive behind the release of the Foley video, they decided not to show any part of it, he said.

"This organisation wanted to show-off, to terrorise, and recruit. We will not allow them to do it because it's a threat for humanity."

However, to some extent, ISIS's media campaign has been successful. A recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal suggested more Americans were aware of Foley's murder than any news event in the last five years.

Language used

The different approaches to ISIS coverage is also apparent in the various ways the organisation is referred to by news outlets in their reports.

We have numerous debates about what words to useFrancoise Champey-Huston, France 24
The BBC refers to them as Islamic State for example, while Al Jazeera English is among the organisations that prefer the acronym ISIL, for 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'.

In France, government policy has been to use the Arabic-derived term Daesh to negate the legitimacy of attaching the word 'state'.

France 24 also had "numerous debates" within the newsroom on what words to use when reporting the videos, said Francoise Champey-Huston, deputy director at the outlet's English service.

"We have numerous debates about what words to use, whether we use 'beheading', whether we would use 'execution' – because the word 'execution' in French means something different than it does in [English]," she said.

"It's all about language."

Language is also important when considering loved ones of the deceased, she said, who may find the word 'beheading,' for example, more distressing than 'murder'.

The outlet, which used "as little as possible of ISIS video", chose not to refer to the organisation as 'Islamic State' from the outset, instead following President Obama's lead in calling them 'ISIL'.

France 24 also refers to ISIS propaganda videos as "recruitment videos," she said.

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