MEDIA should treat terrorist attacks the same way as suicide when it comes to reporting in order to reduce the threat of copycat attempts, a leading expert has warned.
University of Western Australia professor Michael Jetter has previously found “media attention does indeed predict future terrorist activities”. He’s now working on an in-depth analysis of Islamist-inspired attacks and has called for an open discussion on terror and reporting in light of a wave of violence that has blighted Europe.
“The purpose of not reporting suicides fully is to not encourage copycats,” he said, having recently returned from Germany which has suffered five violent incidents in eight days.
“What German newspapers are doing is they’re blowing it up so much that everybody who is seeking attention is really given the signal that, ‘I will be famous.’ That is very likely a reason why you see so many more of those things. It’s a scary development and I do think they need to think about how they cover things.”
While he does not want to restrict press freedom, Mr Jetter said sensationalising perpetrators of atrocities is playing into the hands of terrorists, no matter what the motivation for their attacks is.
“We should be aware that what we do is exactly what these organisations want and we give them an incentive to do something like this again.”
The comments come after a horrific spate of attacks that saw 84 people slain in Nice during Basille day celebrations and a priest killed in a church overnight. France’s state of emergency has been extended four times following previous attacks in Paris. Germany has also seen five major events in eight days, including one thought to be inspired by Norwegian mass murdered Anders Breivik. Meanwhile, Japan has been left reeling from a brutal attack in on a care home described as the worst atrocity since WWII.
The events have prompted an outpouring of emotion and soul searching as to the cause, with many speculating on the media’s role. Mr Jetter said the media plays an integral role in satisfying the perpetrators’ aims — to magnify a sense of terror until it goes far beyond the scope of the original action.
“It’s not aimed at the actual victims. They’re not going for particular people. The extensive media coverage at the moment is exactly what terrorists want,” he said, adding that some of the front pages of German newspapers following attacks read as if they were specifically commissioned by terror groups.
“If ISIS wanted to design a front page they would have written it exactly like that.”
The issue is a tricky one for counter-terrorism officials who rely on the media to convey information in the midst of terror attacks and promote vigilance in society.
A spokeswoman for the UK’s counter-terror organisation said while conversations with media have been held around broadcasting during live events that could put police operations at risk, they are against the idea of any restrictions on reporting generally.
It’s an issue German ARD journalist Richard Gutjahr faced first-hand when he found himself in the middle of the Nice attacks but opted against live streaming the carnage unfolding around him.
Watching the fireworks from his balcony in Nice, the reporter said he “saw something was wrong” instantly but did not flick to live video.
“I decided against Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook Live or Periscope, because I had the feeling that this would not be wise in this situation, where anything could happen. I was also shocked and would not have been in the right state of mind to decide what to show and what not to,” he told Journalism.co.uk.
“I needed someone with a distant and objective view on the imagery to decide what was newsworthy … Everyone was expecting me to livestream, but the best reporting I did that night was the reporting I did not do.”
The Ethical Journalism Network’s Tom Law said even senior political figures have to remember to not rush to judgment as the UK’s new foreign secretary Boris Johnson did in the aftermath of the Munich attack when he blamed Ali Sonboly’s attack on the “global sickness” of Islamist terror. That’s despite German police saying there was “no indication” that was the motive of the gunman earlier.
“In the wake of recent attacks media should take time to reflect on how they can minimise the threat of copycat killings and whether the extensive coverage of the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik may have had a role in inspiring Ali Sonboly,” he said.
This article was republished with permission of the author and publisher.