Optics, News Psychology and the Khashoggi Murder

If journalism is the "first rough draft of history," you have to wonder how historians, years from now, will interpret news accounts surrounding the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The story barely registered in early October, but now is a page-one item.

As the now-ubiquitous news clip shows, the Washington Post contributor and U.S. permanent resident walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. It is believed he never exited and was killed inside the building. Saudi Arabia allegedly is responsible for his death.

[Update: October 19, 7pm ET: Saudi television is reporting that the Saudi government admits Khashoggi is dead, apparently after a fight with security agents. At least two Saudi security officials were fired and an investigation will begin shortly.]

As awful as the Khashoggi story is, it is interesting to ponder how and why the alleged murder of one person has gained so much attention when atrocities on a larger scale, some that Saudi Arabia perpetrated, receive scant media play. In addition, the Khashoggi story arguably has put the U.S.-Saudi relationship on unstable ground, though much larger Saudi misdeeds did not.

One and Many

These are some of the questions behind an interesting story in the NY Times on this subject, which quotes Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who is credited with saying, "The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic."

From a communications viewpoint, personal stories are known to be an effective way to translate a message. It might be an explanation why the Khashoggi incident has pierced the crowded news cycle when much larger atrocities fail to do so.

And what would have happened to the story if the video of Khashoggi entering the consulate had been unavailable to television news and social media?

Also notable are the many brands and CEOs that have pulled out of next week's high-profile Saudi investment conference in Riyadh, a pet project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose role in Khashoggi's death is being debated. Several museums set to undertake programs on Middle Eastern art funded by Saudi money, have decided not to accept those funds.

It's not a secret that a growing portion of consumers, particularly millennials, want brands to stand for something beyond their products and services. The exodus from the conference is notable in that regard and seems proof positive that brands are keenly aware of the need to appear socially responsibile.

It is also important to recall that Uber's CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was one of the early CEOs to pull out, well before the story reached fever pitch this week. His move was particularly gutsy considering the Saudi sovereign wealth fund invested $3.5 billion in Uber in 2016.

Go No Go

One part of the breaking news on this story is that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin decided Thursday to pull out of the conference.  Earlier today he decided to attend a different conference in Saudi Arabia, ironically one about anti-terrorism.

President Trump, very much the way brands did in the early days of this story, monitored the growing social conversation. Initially the president downplayed reports of alleged Saudi involvement in Khashoggi's death. As little as two days ago he slammed Saudi detractors. His stance changed Thursday, apparently prompting his Treasury Secretary's exit from the investment conference.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein