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The CNN headline states the FBI sees al Qaeda and Mexican cartels as similar. But note above, in a detail from within the story's web page that CNN's reporting actually contradicts its headline. (Credit: CNN, web site detail)

A CNN story last week may have grabbed readers’ attention with its interesting but inaccurate title claiming that the FBI sees al Qaeda and Mexican drug cartels as comparable: but was it true?

The Aug. 2 story, headlined “FBI highlights similarities between al Qaeda, cartels,” offers no real proof that the FBI believes al Qaeda and the cartels are similar.  In fact, the story’s author, the generic “CNN wire staff,” actually quotes an FBI spokesperson, special agent Jason Pack,  saying that the FBI does NOT believe they are similar.

One quote from one unidentified person in an FBI report seems to have spurred this article.  The FBI report, which CNN doesn’t name or link to but iMediaEthics found, is titled “On the Southwest Border.”

On the FBI’s website with the report is a summary article, which quotes the unidentified senior agent in El Paso, Texas, as saying the cartels are as violent as al Qaeda.

“We think al Qaeda is bad, but they’ve got nothing on the cartels… We think al Qaeda is violent…but the cartels here are often just as willing to resort to extreme brutality and bloodshed to carry out their objectives,” the FBI reports the agent said.

CNN reported that FBI special agent Jason Pack explained the comment as being representative of just one FBI agent and not the organization as a whole.  Pack said “The FBI does not believe the cartels are any more dangerous than al Qaeda.”

So, while one agent believes al Qaeda and the cartels are equally as violent, the spokesperson for the FBI organization as a whole debunks that agent’s claim.  Yet, CNN still opted to package the story as the FBI’s point of view, which the FBI said isn’t accurate.

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CNN goes on to compare Mexico’s cartel violence with al Qaeda’s, listing head severing and video footage of kidnap victims as techniques used by both organizations.

And even after that, CNN quotes a global intelligence executive, Fred Burton, who said that while the Mexican cartels may be violent, they aren’t the same as al Qaeda.What the FBI report DID compare Mexican cartels to is 1930s Chicago gangsters and the NY five family mafia.

Despite having scant evidence that the cartels and al Qaeda are equally violent, CNN still published a misleading – and apparently incorrect – headline.

JProf.com, the journalism education website of Univ. of Tennessee journalism professor James Glen Stovall, wrote Aug. 8 that “the first rule of headline writing is that the words accurately represent what is in the story.”

“If facts are not in the story, do not use them in a headline,” Stovall advised.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics advises journalists to “make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”

HAT TIP: Thanks to Joaquin Bustelo for pointing out the incorrect headline on the Louis Proyect’s list serv.

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