Do media make kidnap negotiations more difficult?

"The media's interest in telling a dramatic story plays into the interests of the terrorists."

abu abir, asheri id, 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
abu abir, asheri id, 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
The media's need for a good story can conflict with the patience needed for a good outcome to hostage situations like the one in which Cpl. Gilad Shalit is currently caught, top media experts told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "One of the interesting features of a kidnaping such as this is that, from the terrorists' perspective, it is a much more effective way of putting pressure on Israel than actually killing soldiers," said Hebrew University professor Gadi Wolfsfeld. "A soldier who is killed in an attack is dealt with for a day and then is no longer given prominence in the media, whereas a kidnaping can last for weeks." The prominence given to the kidnaping by Israeli leaders, Wolfsfeld said, was also cause for a dilemma. "On the one hand, there is a tendency to give such an event prominence out of a belief that this will put more pressure on the Palestinian Authority and result in a greater likelihood of the soldier being returned," he said. "But it also plays into the hands of the terrorists because they've accomplished what they wanted by keeping it a prominent issue." From the perspective of the media itself, Wolfsfeld said, the story is obviously appealing in terms of the continuing drama and personal anguish involved. "Sadly, this also plays into the hands of the terrorists," he said. The only positive role the media can play in this situation, according to Wolfsfeld, is to create public coverage that may put pressure on the terrorists not to kill the soldier. At the same time, he said, the exposure of the Shalit family in the media underscored the emotional impact of the kidnaping, and to a certain extent helped the terrorists achieve their goal. "The family can have an effect on public opinion because of the public's identification with it, which may pressure the government to say it will do whatever is necessary to bring back the soldier," Wolfsfeld said. "It's been causing plenty of people to come on air saying 'give them whatever they want,' but this isn't necessarily a good policy." "In general, the media does not play a positive role when it comes to negotiations," said Dr. Tamir Shefer, a colleague of Wolfsfeld's at Hebrew University. "Negotiations are a secret process that requires time and patience, while the media's needs are the exact opposite." Like Wolfsfeld, however, Tamir agreed that "The more personal the story portrayed by the media, the more pressure is likely to be put on the government." Dr. Yoram Peri, director of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, also noted the media's focus on the personal drama involved in the kidnaping. The coverage of the kidnaping, he said, "played into the enemy's hands" by "underscoring the internal weakness and sense of crisis" in Israel. "The media's interest in telling a dramatic story plays into the interests of the terrorists to provoke a sense of internal tension, weakness and confusion in Israel," Peri said. In addition, Peri noted, the media coverage of the kidnaping tended toward demanding a military reaction and underscoring the points of contention between the government and the military, rather than posing the more neutral question of what is the best way to react. "The newspaper headlines have grown larger and larger over the past week, but this is a sign of exaggeration that is based on the needs of the media itself," Peri said. "At the end of the day, it has the adverse effect of creating unnecessary tension with little positive impact."