Building in Idib, Syria

The danger of reporting on ISIS’ cultural terrorism

When reporting on the destruction of antiquities via acts of demolition by ISIS, journalists time and again are falling into the same traps. By stressing the impacts of these attacks on local cultures, journalists simply advertise the success of these tactics to the world.

ISIS have a track record of destroying antiquities as a component of their wholescale strategy of cultural terrorism. Journalists tend to follow a singular structure when reporting on this behaviour. First, they report the damage caused by the attack in terms of fact, giving readers an objective understanding of the damage caused. Second, they describe the emotional impact that the attack has had on those affected, allowing the reader to sense the impact the attack has had on its victims. Lastly, they close with a message of condemnation, often from a third-party: a final act of defiance against a body deemed extraordinarily cruel and malicious.

This tripartite structure is not simply ineffective: it may be partly to blame.

Take, for example, the controlled destruction of the Syrian city of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in 2015. Prior to destroying this site, the attack had been threatened by ISIS for weeks – ample time to create a feeling of fear and dismay to the local populace which valued it. When the site was finally destroyed, the entire process was video-taped and posted online for the world to see.

If this behaviour was a result of some wholescale ideology of iconoclasm, there would be no reason to threaten the attack, or to stall the destruction, or videotape the process. In this respect, such provisions are simply inefficient. These actions are not those of an organisation ignorant of the value of antiquities. Quite the opposite: these are the actions of an organisation which knows of their value to its enemies.

These demolitions are choreography, plain and simple.

This choreography is a central pillar of the group’s success: they know that, through destroying artefacts which many cultures hold dear, they can target the morale of their enemies in a way that direct violence never can. They can gain worldwide exposure for committing an atrocity whilst entirely avoiding the obvious danger a gunfight would pose. In short, they dominate the headlines, and all it cost them was a few explosives and a video-camera.

The 3-part structural model which is employed so frequently by Western journalists, consequently, is a structure which is feeding right into the desires of ISIS. By reporting on the emotional damage the attack has had on local populations, journalists are simply validating the effectiveness of the tactic to the organisation. This validation simply promotes further acts of cultural terrorism. This is because the low-cost nature of such attacks, both regarding the monetary cost and the cost of human life, is so little. In short, by emphasising the cultural impacts of these attacks, journalists may simply be exacerbating the destruction.

Similarly, by condemning these attacks, journalists are simply highlighting the powerlessness of news media in this context. To those they are addressed to, their words fall on deaf ears. But to those they are attempting to protect, the message could not be clearer: if ISIS continues to destroy antiquities, this will be met with increased coverage, more futile condemnation and further validation of the tactic’s success. And so the vicious circle repeats – local populations are victimised to an even greater extent as ISIS responds to the promise of increased coverage with larger-scale demolitions. These acts are then accompanied by a more extreme choreography.

This is why the structure of reporting in the status quo is so dangerous: in attempting to combat the destruction, coverage of this nature simply causes more.

Obviously, the facts of these destructions must still be reported, but there are a number of alternatives to this form of reporting which could limit the damage caused by their articles.

Instead of reporting from a standpoint of weakness, journalists could focus on messages of strength from the victims of these attacks. Any message of resilience in this sense has the potential to counteract the effectiveness of the organisation’s tactics. By forwarding tones of unity and messages which encourage perseverance, journalists could also aid in maintaining the morale of those being persecuted by the organisation.

These subtle shifts in tone would allow journalists to positively impact the world perception of the conflict by creating a message which no longer promotes ISIS as an indomitable force. If the message was to be shifted from one of weakness to one of strength, we may see an increase in morale from the enemies of ISIS. This could result in a weakening of the organisation altogether as the nature of future literature published about them shifts from inadvertently compounding their power to directly undermining it.

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Gareth Luke

Gareth Luke

Political Editor
I am the Political Editor of Young Perspective. I lead a small team of writers to try to make the Politics section of the magazine as current, appealing and insightful as possible! I study History and Politics at the University of Glasgow, and have just finished my first year in the course.
Gareth Luke

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