Face to Face with a Suicide Bomber  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2002

Face to Face with a Suicide Bomber   

Journalists wrestle with a new ethical dilemma

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


Ethics weren't on Gregg Zoroya's mind when he flew to Israel this spring, planning to write a story about female suicide bombers. The Virginia-based USA Today reporter was following the Palestinian uprising that in 18 months had killed 185 Israelis in suicide bombings. One Palestinian militant group's recent recruitment of women bombers had sparked Zoroya's interest.

Traveling to Jerusalem, Zoroya briefly considered what he would do if he found a suicide bomber planning an attack. Should he turn her in? Would it betray his role as a journalist if he became an Israeli informant? Could he live with himself if he didn't?

But Zoroya didn't dwell on it. Interviewing an actual suicide bomber seemed far-fetched. "I did contemplate it," Zoroya says. "But I just didn't see how that would happen."

But it did. And Zoroya became immersed in a situation that raises complex questions about terrorism coverage.

With the help of a savvy fixer--a local translator who helps reporters arrange interviews--Zoroya found himself face to face with Suha, a pretty 30-year-old who said she was preparing for a suicide-bombing mission. With her nervous bodyguard sitting next to her in a house in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Suha told

Zoroya she volunteered her life for the Palestinian cause after Israeli troops moved into the West Bank. She was awaiting her mission, staying in a safe house guarded by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant Palestinian group. In recent weeks the group had defied Islamic tradition and the practices of other Palestinian groups by sending out four female suicide bombers. The group's leaders said they adopted the tactic because women looked less suspicious than men. Zoroya says the rushed interview, done through his translator with armed men nearby, was almost surreal. "It was a strange situation. They gave me about 10 minutes," Zoroya says. "She came in kind of giggling.... It was like she was kind of nervous about all the attention."

A feature reporter on loan to the news section since September 11, Zoroya had impressed his editors by dropping into Pakistan and Afghanistan and producing admirable war coverage. He was expected to do the same in his 12-day trip to Israel, with his story idea about female suicide bombers.

Two days after his arrival, Zoroya and his fixer went to the West Bank, unsure exactly whom they would interview. With the help of the fixer's contacts, they met a series of Al-Aqsa intermediaries who were clearly feeling out the Western reporter. On April 20, they led Zoroya to the home of a Palestinian family in a refugee camp to meet Al-Aqsa commander Fayez Jaber. Jaber then introduced Zoroya to his female suicide bomber recruit.

The woman asked to be called Suha--an Arabic name meaning "faint star." She wouldn't reveal her real name or hometown. She said she was ready to blow herself up but had no idea when or where her mission would be. Zoroya says he did not dig further.

He returned to Jerusalem and began writing the story the next morning. The ethics of interviewing a potential suicide bomber were in the back of his mind, but he says he didn't consider going to the authorities. "I didn't see a problem," he says. "I didn't really have anything to report. It wasn't like I knew they were going to blow up the Wailing Wall at 3 o'clock the next day."

While Zoroya wrote, his editors back at USA Today's newsroom in Virginia discussed the story, slated to run on the next day's front page. The editors did not dwell on the ethical questions surrounding it, says Elisa Tinsley, the paper's world editor. "Our major concern at that point was verifying the authenticity," Tinsley says. "Clearly our focus was on, 'Did we really have a story?' "

Zoroya spent the day working with other reporters in the U.S. and the Middle East to make sure he hadn't been duped. They combed records and made calls to confirm the identity of Jaber, the militant group commander, and his role in ordering suicide bombings. Once his identity was verified by five or more Palestinian and Israeli sources, Zoroya and the paper were satisfied. Top editors say had Zoroya known the potential bomber's name, or the date and location of her mission, their decision would have been much more complicated.

Tinsley--who ran USA Today's foreign bureaus before becoming world editor three years ago--says she is uneasy about the idea of asking her reporters to hand over information to authorities, even if lives might be at stake.

"You risk becoming part of the conflict," Tinsley says. "That's the last thing we want to do to our reporters."

No readers complained. But journalists, including reporters from Slate and a Miami radio station, called the paper wanting to talk ethics.

Slate senior writer Scott Shuger, who did a five-year stint in the Navy and served as a U.S. intelligence officer, wrote a column asking what reporters should do if presented with an impending terrorist act. Does moral duty trump journalistic integrity?

Shuger wrote, "[I]t'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."

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics lists more than 35 things reporters should and shouldn't do. But none specifically applies in a case where a journalist has inside information about a suicide bomber, says Fred Brown, cochair of SPJ's ethics committee and a retired Denver Post reporter and editor. When the code was last revised in 1996, terrorist coverage was not specifically discussed, Brown says. SPJ thought telling journalists things like not to be arrogant and not to take advantage of their subjects would cover almost everything.

"As I look at this situation, I'm not sure," says Brown. "Maybe we ought to add provisions that deal specifically with war and terrorism."

Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's ethics program, says reporters have wrestled with similar dilemmas for years when covering extremist groups in the anti-Vietnam War movement, the anti-nuclear movement and the illegal drug trade. The ethical question usually boils down to whether you make "a deal with the devil" for the sake of the story, Steele says.

Sometimes it's justified in order to show the inner workings of an organization that the public needs to understand, Steele says. Other times moral implications and risks outweigh any gains. The trick is to talk about ethics early. "If a reporter and a newspaper are doing a story of this nature--which I suggest takes them into an ethics minefield--it is essential that they do a lot of front-end decision making," Steele says. "Ideally, you ask a lot of questions before you're in the minefield."

Zoroya, now back from Israel, says he has no regrets about his piece, though he can't forget it. Weeks after his face-to-face meeting with Suha, suicide bombings continue. He knows one day one of the bombers may be Suha, and she will probably take innocent lives with her.

"I don't know how I would deal with that," he says.

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