Drone Strikes and the Targeted Killing Program: A Media & Communications Roadmap to Advocacy and Reform

The practice of targeted killing by drone is expanding with minimal congressional oversight, and under a questionable legal framework. At the same time, the number of innocent casualties has steadily increased and a growing body of evidence suggests that the public reporting of these casualties has been grossly inaccurate. There has been minimal public discussion of concerns that the targeted killing program is actually working against U.S. security by fostering resentment and turning whole populations against us. And finally, there is almost no public discussion of the critical issues of precedent and proliferation – Is current U.S. policy setting a standard for the unaccountable global use of targeted killing? In a world where most industrialized nations are projected to have armed drones within 10 years, these are all critical policy issues.

The goal of this media and public opinion audit is to inform the development of media and messaging strategies among organizations working to restrain the U.S. targeted killing program, bring it under greater congressional oversight, increase transparency, and establish clearer legal guidelines. It is also meant to inform current and potential funders who support these efforts, of important strategic opportunities and resource gaps.

This comprehensive benchmark media audit examines domestic media coverage of the U.S. targeted killing program across 13,710 quotations from more than 2,100 print, wire service, and broadcast stories and transcripts, and 529 editorial and opinion pieces over a 14 month period from January 2013 to March 1 2014. It excludes discussions of the domestic use of drones for surveillance, law enforcement, border patrols, etc. The audit additionally examines public opinion and social media trends (including more than 9 million tweets) over the same time. The abbreviation “NSHR” refers to organizations associated with the Open Society Foundation’s National Security and Human Rights campaign. The abbreviation “SRC” refers to the organizations associated with the Proteus Fund’s Security and Rights Collaborative. The terms are often used interchangeably due to both the overlap between the two and internal coding on the part of ReThink Media. Anti-drone sentiment dominated early, now tied with pro-drone.

Quotations were coded as “positive” if they advocate for more restraint, transparency, and accountability in the targeted killing program—essentially, “anti-drone.” Quotations were coded as “negative” if they oppose disclosures about the targeted killing program, advocate for the increased use of drones, or unreservedly defend the program—essentially, “pro-drone.” Quotations were considered neutral if they are factual, objectively verifiable statements or present a balanced argument. A complete description of the methodology is included in the appendix.

Based on this extensive media audit and ReThink Media’s long experience in related fields, we suggest seven campaigns or strategies for future advocacy work on the targeted killing program, summarized in this Executive Summary and elaborated in Section VI. We then summarize our findings and recommendations from each of the major sections of this audit.

The practice of targeted killing by drone is expanding with minimal congressional oversight, and under a questionable legal framework. At the same time, the number of innocent casualties has steadily increased and a growing body of evidence suggests that the public reporting of these casualties has been grossly inaccurate. There has been minimal public discussion of concerns that the targeted killing program is actually working against U.S. security by fostering resentment and turning whole populations against us. And finally, there is almost no public discussion of the critical issues of precedent and proliferation – Is current U.S. policy setting a standard for the unaccountable global use of targeted killing? In a world where most industrialized nations are projected to have armed drones within 10 years, these are all critical policy issues.

The goal of this media and public opinion audit is to inform the development of media and messaging strategies among organizations working to restrain the U.S. targeted killing program, bring it under greater congressional oversight, increase transparency, and establish clearer legal guidelines. It is also meant to inform current and potential funders who support these efforts, of important strategic opportunities and resource gaps.