Dealing with terrorist propaganda is never easy for journalists. Any telling of the story has to include both sides. But only up to point. Bold, grandiose of victory, progress or purity should be met with the usual reasonable scepticism. No journalist wants to end up acting as a PR assistant to thugs and killers.
The release last month of the Islamic State video showing the execution of James Foley prompted a degree of soul searching among hacks. Some said even the act of viewing it was to give the thugs a victory, generating the horror and revulsion they sought to propagate – much less actually broadcasting the video itself. Twitter began deactivating accounts of those who spread particularly gruesome images (prompting a debate about internet freedom).
This time around some of the lessons have been learned. The video and its images seem to have been rather more difficult to find. Twitter users have thought twice before spreading them, stemming the flow of fear.
However, this morning the New York Daily News (roundly criticised for its use of graphic imagery on its front page last time) has blundered into an elephant trap set by the Islamic State’s bloodied propagandists. Its front page seems to place the blame for Steven Sotloff’s death with Barack Obama and his “dithering” over Syria.
Isn’t this exactly what the terrorists want, to pile pressure on the US to force it into another war in a Muslim land – the single most potent recruiting agent that the Islamic State has in its arsenal?
On this occasion Mr Obama’s reluctance to race into a strategy – his insistence on not doing “stupid s***” as the unofficial motto has it – might well be the best, most rational response.