Reporting Terrorism: How Reckless Media Can Make Matters Worse

Aidan White

20 August 2015

counterterrorism_web.jpg

Over the past year the Ethical Journalism Network has been raising the alarm among journalists, media activists and policymakers about the threat posed by sensationalist coverage of terrorism.

The widespread publication of videos produced by terrorists and explicit reporting of extremist violence has troubled many people who worry that shock and awe coverage only adds to public fear and uncertainty. Now there’s evidence that media sensationalism is indeed spreading a toxic message which may help terrorists win their propaganda war.

Earlier this month a startling and detailed report into the impact of media coverage of atrocity violence shows a clear link between reporting terrorism and follow up attacks. Unlike the news reporting at the heart of the study, this report has not been widely covered in the mainstream media.

The research by Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad in Medellín, Colombia – a city which some 20 years ago was regarded as the murder capital of the world because of gang violence – raises issues which should concern every editor and newsroom executive.

Jetter says that in the last 15 years “the world has experienced a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks”. The total number of casualties from terrorism in this period has risen from 3,387 to 15,396. At the same time, he says, terrorist groups increasingly seek to use the media to promote their agendas and they they have largely succeeded.

Jetter analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 as reported in the New York Times. He compared headline-grabbing terrorist attacks with coverage of other big stories, such as natural disasters, and found a clear link between the number of articles devoted to an initial terrorist incident and the number of follow-up attacks over the next few weeks.

According to his findings, one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11 percent and 15 percent. On average, he noted a correlation between an additional Times article and casualties from a further terrorist attack within the next week.

Different types of terrorist activity were found to have different media impacts. Suicide missions, for instance, receive significantly more media coverage, which he believes could explain their increased popularity among terrorist groups.

Whenever research like this pops up it prompts further debate about how media report on terrorism. Of particular concern is the fear that the use of slick and explicit videos produced by groups like ISIS in mainstream media serves to strengthen the group’s appeal, particularly to alienated and disconnected young people living in Muslim communities, leading to so-called radicalisation.

Some may think that this research provides a compelling case for censorship of media coverage of the terrorism story, but that would be a mistake.

The challenge to journalism is not to ignore the story or even to tone it down, but to provide careful, sensitive reporting that puts extreme and dramatic acts of violence in context without falling into the propaganda trap set by media-savvy terrorists.

Journalists will do well to remember that terrorists rely on fear and ignorance to achieve their objectives. They have done so since heads started rolling during the first days of the French revolution and its hallmark period of “terreur” more than 200 years ago.

Media can’t do much to alleviate the disconcerting but entirely understandable effects of ruthless and brutal attacks on innocent civilians, but media must not ratchet up the levels of panic through sensationalist and inaccurate coverage.

It’s a point made by Jason Burke, author of a new book to be published later this month, which reveals how terrorism relies on the circulation and embedding in the public mind of myths designed to undermine public confidence.

Journalism can counter this by reporting in context and by debunking myths, for instance by underscoring that so-called “dirty bombs,” or terrorist access to nuclear material, are largely the stuff of fantasy. It will help also to remind the audience that the number of casualties, horrifying though they may be, are statistically negligible compared to other forms of sudden death.

When media rush to publish they can pay a heavy price. The mistakes made by French television channels in their coverage of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January this year led to the official censure and this week it was announced that one of the Charlie Hebdo siege victims is to sue media for putting his life at risk.

These journalists are learning the hard way that when it comes to terrorism we need to tread carefully. Tell the truth and respect the facts, of course, but above all, when lives are at stake, also be aware of the consequences of what we are reporting and how we report it.


Sign up for the Ethical Journalism Newsletter to get weekly updates on media ethics.
Photo:
Flickr CC Elliott Brown

comments powered by Disqus
ABU, AP, ARTICLE 19, Accountable Journalism, Afghan Journalists Federation, Afghanistan, Afghanistan Journalists Centre, Africa, Africa e Mediterraneo and Lai-momo Summer School, Agence France-Presse (AFP), Ahmad Quraishi, Ahmet Altan, Aidan White, Aiding Law enforcement, Alan Yuhas, Albania, Aljazeera, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights, Anti-Semitism, Arabic, Ashok Gupta, Ashraf Ghani, Asia, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Associated Reporters Abroad, Association of Commercial Television, Australia, Aylan Kurdi, BBC, BBC Radio London, BBC World Service, Balkans, Barcelona, Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture (CCCB), Being first, Belgium, Billy Russell, Bob Geldof, Bosnia, Boston Marathon bomber, Bottom-line decisions, Brazil, Brexit, Broadcast, Brussels, Brussels Terror Attacks 2016, Bulgaria, Burma, Buzzfeed, CIMA, Can Dündar, Carles Torner, Central Asia, Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CPMF), Ceren Sözeri, Channel 4, Charlie Beckett, Charlie Hebdo, Charter of Rome, Child Rights International Network (CRIN), China, Chris Elliott, Christopher Kremmer, City University London, Climate News Network, Comedy, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Conference, Conflict, Conservative Party, Consorci Universitat Internacional Menéndez Pelayo de Barcelona (UIMP Barcelona – Centre Ernest Lluch), Controversial photos, Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM), Covering politics, Crimea, Croatia, Cumhuriyet - Turkey, Darfur, Dart Center, David Cameron, David Jordan, Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Denmark, Director's Letter, Donald Trump, Dorothy Byrne, Dr. Zahera Harb, Dunja Mijatovic, EJN Annual Report, EJN Board, EJN International Collaborators, EJN Secretariat, EJN activities, EJN member, EJN participation, EJN report, Earthquakes, Editorial Guidelines, Egypt, Elliot Cass, English, English PEN, Erdem Gül, Eric Baradat, Eric Wishart, Erol Önderoğlu, Ethical Journalism, Ethical Journalism for Free Expression, Ethical Journalism in Action, Ethiopia, Europe, European Commission, European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), European Magazine Media Association, European Media and Information Literacy Forum, European Press Prize, European Union, European University Institute (EUI), Evening Standard, Facebook, Fatumo Farah, Federation of African Journalists (FAJ), Film, Finland, First Amendment Award, Founding EJN member, Fox News, France, Franco-Prussian War, Frans Timmermans, GFMD, Gambia, Gary Younge, Gaza, Geir Terje Ruud, George W. Bush, German PEN, Getting the story, Gezi Park, Giles Duley, Global Editors Network (GEN), Google, Haim Shibi, Handling sources, Huffington Post, Human Rights, Humanitarianism, Hungary, Hürriyet - Turkey, IFEX, IPI World Congress, ISIS, Iceland, Independent Association of Egyptian Editors, Independent Press Standards Organisation, Index on Censorship, India, Indonesia, Indonesia;, Indonesian Press Council, Indonesian Press Council (IPC), Institute of the Mediterranean, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Journalism Festival, International Media Ethics Day, International Press Institute (IPI), International Women's Day, Invading privacy, Iran, Israel, Israeli Federation of Journalists, Italy, Jakarta, James Copnall, James Rodgers, Jan Egeland, Jean-Paul Mathoz, Jerusalem Association of Journalists, Jerusalem Post, John Oliver, Jon Snow, Jordan, Jordan Media Institute, Journalist, Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Justice and Development Party - Turkey, Jyllands Posten, Katie Hopkins, Katie Morris, Keith Somerville, Ken Clarke, Kieran Cooke, Kigali, Kosovo, Lampedusa, Latin America, Latvia, Le Monde, Le Siècle, Lebanon, Leveson, Liat Collins, Lindsey Hilsum, London Press Club, London School of Economics (LSE), Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), L’Osservatore Romano, Macedonia, Macedonian School of Journalism and Public Relations (SJPR), Malta, Manning, Mare Nostrum, Mark Doyle, Marta Foresti, Martin Plaut, Matt Frei, Matthew Price, Media & Learning, Media Diversity Institute, Media Literacy, Media and Information Literacy, Media and migration, Mediterranean, Megan Howe, Mehmet Baransu, Melanie Gouby, Mexico, Miami Herald, Middle East, Military issues, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, Mohammed Jamjoom, Montenegro, Moving Stories, Myanmar, NGO, NLA University College (Gimlekollen) Kristiansand, NPR, Naming newsmakers, Nasser Abubaker, National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) Thailand, Natural Disasters, Neil Thurman, Nepal, New York, New York Times, Niangara massacre, Nigeria, No Borders Project, North America, Norway, Norwegian, Norwegian Institute for Journalism, Norwegian Refugee Council, ONA, ONO, Ofcom, Oficina Antifrau de Catalunya, Ombudsmen, Oona Solberg, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Organisation of News Ombudsmen, Overseas Development Institute, PEN America, PEN International, Pakistan, Pakistan Coalition for Ethical Journalism, Palestine, Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Panama, Panama Papers, Paris, Partners Working In Collaboration With the EJN, Peter Greste, Peter Sullivan, Phepchai Yong, Philippines, Pierluigi Musarò, Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), Polis, Pope Francis, Poynter, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, Press Complaints Commission, Press Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Press Council of Kosovo (PCK), Press Council of Serbia, Press Council of Thailand, Press Safety, Privy Council, Racheal Nakitare, Radio, Randi S. Øgrey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Reddit, Regulation, Reporters without Borders, Ricardo Gutierrez, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Rory Peck Trust, Rossalyn Warren, Royal Charters, Russia, Rwanda, SPJ, Samantha Bee, Sarajevo, Satire, Save the Children, Secret Filming, Self-cencorship, Sensationalism, Sensitive news topics, Serbia, Shaike Komornik, Shami Chakrabarti, Singapore, Sky News, Snowden, Social Action Centre - Ukraine, Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code, Soft Censorship, South Africa, South America, South East Europe Media Organisation, South East European Network for Professionalization of the Media, South Eastern Europe, South Sudan, Spain, Sr. Rogelio Grajal, Statewatch, Stephen JA Ward, Steven Livingston, Sudan, Sulome Anderson, Supinya Klangnarong, Sweden, Swedish PEN, Syria, TV, Taraf newspaper - Turkey, Thai Association of Journalists, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, Thailand, The Conversation, The Eagle Tribune, The Guardian, The Independent, The Society of Professional Journalists, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Vatican, Thomas Spence, Tom Law, Transparency International, Tuncay Opçin, Tunisia, Turkey, Twitter, Typhoons, UK, UN, UN Alliance of Civilisations, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), UNESCO, UNESCO IPDC, UNICEF, US, USA, USA Today, Uganda, Ukraine, Ukrainian, United Kingdom, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United States, University of Bologna, Untold Stories, Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB), WAN-IFRA, Wanchai Danaitamonut, Whistleblowing, Wikileaks, William Wintercross, Workplace issues, World Press Freedom Day, World Radio Day, Yasemin Çongar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Zalmaï, accountability, accuracy, advertising, anonymous comments, automation, bias, blasphemy, blog, breaking news, business model, canada, cartoons, censorship, climate change, code of ethics, comments, complaints, corrections, corruption, credibility, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, data protection, data-driven journalism, democracy, digital, draft law, e European Magazine Media Association, election, ethical journalism weekly roundup, ethics, events, fact checking, fairness, freedom of expression, gender, global ethics, globalism, good news, governance, handbook, hate speech, identity, impunity, infographic, internet, investigative reporting, journalism, journalism training, journalist safety, journalistic methods, journalists in exile, law, legal, libel, media, media audit, media development, media ethics, media ethics and children, media law, migrants, migration, mobile, moderation, newspapers, objectivity, ombudsman, open journalism, ownership, paid content, photo journalism, pluralism, press council, press freedom, press release, propaganda, public editor, public interest, public opinion, public trust, readers’ editor, refugee crisis, refugees, reliability, religion, representation, right to be forgotten, right to information, robot journalism, rumours, self regulation, self-regulation, shield law, social media, standards, statements, style guide, surveys, technology, terrorism, transparency, trolls, turning the page of hate, verification, video, vulgarities, war, women, İpek Yezdani