Would I do this story?

Where to draw the line on insurgent coverage

Toward the end of yesterday’s “Morning Edition” on NPR, Renee Montagne introduced a segment called “Portrait of a Suicide Bomber.” Though reporting on insurgents—or even “embedding” with them as in the case of Patrick Graham for his award-winning June 2004 Harper’s article—is not uncommon, this three-minute profile of a twenty-nine-year-old member of an Al-Qaeda affiliate was different. Rather than focusing on the beliefs or lifestyle of Abu Abdul (a pseudonym)-a typical approach to covering insurgents-NPR’s Baghdad correspondent, Anne Garrels, dedicated the majority of her segment to describing his military training, his involvement in several bombings, and his determination to blow himself up in the name of jihad.

Underneath his tunic, he wears a homemade suicide vest,” she reported. “He has planned attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops as well as Iraqi government figures. He says he was involved in the April 12th bombing inside the Iraqi parliament.

It was at this point in the story, that I found myself wondering, “Was this reporting ethical?” Should a reporter be interviewing someone she knows has killed innocent people and who plans to kill more? Does the public interest value of the insurgency merit this type of story?

I have never covered a war. I’ve never even been in a war zone. But as a journalist, I know that there are times when your identity as a citizen (of both your country and the world) trumps your role as a newsgatherer. So when Garrels faithfully reported that “Abu Abdul says he will one day blow himself up to kill what he calls the infidels,” I felt more than a little uncomfortable. “He has already planned how he will do it,” she continued. “He will pose as a woman disguised in a black robe.” This is the wartime equivalent of a suicidal individual with a plan. In such cases, does a journalist have a moral obligation to intervene? Certainly, no reporter should ever assume the role of an informant, particularly if she solicits and then reports a story. However, there is a case to be made—and it is often made in the debate over a federal shield law for journalists—that if a reporter is given access to information that involves impending harm to others or to national security, he should (and likely would) report it to the relevant authorities. The most commonly cited hypothetical is 9/11: What reporter wouldn’t have gone to the authorities had he received information portending the 9/11 attacks?

Abu Abdul’s past actions and future plans for a suicide bombing are not equivalent to the magnitude of a disaster like 9/11, but they’re hardly insignificant. While the insurgency is at the heart of the situation in Iraq, and obviously merits substantial coverage, how far should journalists go in the pursuit of this story? When Garrels concluded her report by saying, “Abu Abdul says suicide bombers are the greatest weapon in Al-Qaeda’s arsenal, one he believes the U.S. will never be able to combat,” I found myself thinking first, how terrifying, and second, would I have reported that story? It’s true that there are hundreds more Abu Abduls, but is the story worth telling when it pits my duty to protect a source against my moral obligation to protect the safety of others?

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Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.