War Stories

Write vs. Wrong

What should a reporter do when he meets a terrorist?

Monday’s USA Today featured a remarkable first—an interview with a Palestinian woman trained by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who’s planning to carry out a suicide bombing against Israel. The reporter, Gregg Zoroya, met in a West Bank refugee camp with her and her AAMB handler.

A remarkable story, and an ethically complicated one. Zoroya agreed not to use the woman’s real name, a concession USA Today rarely makes. And to ensure that he was not being scammed, he went to Israeli security sources, who confirmed that they counted the handler as active in the AAMB. But he didn’t tell the Israelis who the woman was or where his meeting was taking place. From a pure journalism point of view, this all makes perfect sense. But think about this story just a little bit and watch your moral intuition needles start bouncing all over the place.

Maybe you think it’s obvious that USA Today did just what a newspaper should do because journalism is all about reporting the news, not changing it. The paper found out that a woman was planning a suicide attack and reported on her plans, period. But wait a second—recall that to satisfy its own professional requirements, the paper contacted Israeli security sources, thereby notifying them that a particular AAMB member had trained a particular woman to carry out a suicide mission. This is journalism’s inevitable Heisenberg effect: Reporting on the world changes it. So, why not change it in a way that could save many innocent lives—by turning her in?

Suppose USA Today had managed to convince another young angry Muslim to talk on the record about his intention to conduct a suicide mission—and that he’d been trained by al-Qaida to hit an American target. Are you still sure the paper would be right not to go to the (U.S.) government and blow the whistle on this guy? (Bill Sternberg, a Washington-based USA Today senior editor, told me that what the paper would or should do in such a hypothetical situation never came up in the in-house editorial discussions of Zoroya’s story; they mostly focused on ensuring the woman’s authenticity.)

Maybe you think the difference is that USA Today is a U.S. paper, not an Israeli one, and that simple patriotism dictates going to the cops in the latter case but not the former. But this can’t be right—if it were, then no American paper would ever have the obligation to help prevent the death of innocent non-Americans.

If anything gets USA Today off the hook, it’s that Zoroya didn’t know any details of the woman’s plan.. She was definite about her intent, but not about anything else. She said why she would attack—because “Life is worth nothing when our people are being humiliated on a daily basis”—but nothing about what or where or when. If she had gone into these specifics, then surely the paper would have had to drop a dime on her, right?

Since it’s specificity that seems to tip the moral scales here, a reporter working on a story about terrorism probably knows that almost any details he learns about planned acts can turn his work from a story into just a police tip. Therefore, it’s understandable that reporters on such beats would tend to curb their ordinarily insatiable desire to learn as much as possible. (Not only did Zoroya not use the would-be suicide bomber’s real name in the story—he never learned it.) But journalists should never forget this dilemma posed by terrorism: If knowing something can kill their story, not knowing it can kill us.