Terrorist attacks have unfortunately become a regular news item. After dealing with a succession of incidents many newsrooms appear better prepared to confront one of the most challenging stories of the time. Some have drawn lessons from their previous failings and adopted stricter guidelines.
However there is a form of inevitability in the way many media cover terrorism: images that often are picked up on social platforms are rushed into publication and rebroadcast incessantly; stand-up live reporting close to the scene excites and dramatizes the coverage; witnesses are solicited and experts, either from academia or from more partisan advocacy groups, are called in to “interpret” the event often in the middle of confusion and mayhem.
“By playing this endless loop of the same images of terrified people running away from the scene of an attack, we are essentially playing into the hands of terrorists”, reminded Indira Lakshmanan, chair of journalism ethics for Poynter, in an interview with NPR on June 4, 2017.
This media overdose extends to the coverage of reactions to the attack. “When you dramatize excessively the collective emotion you encourage criminal actions,” writes Michel Fize, author of Les larmes de Charlie…et Cie (The tears of Charlie…and Company), in Le Monde on August 25, 2017. “With all these reactive demonstrations of prayers and marches, we show the assailants less that we have solidarity and are more bound together, than affected by the acts of horror”.
The media struggle to cope with the avalanche of tweets, messages and pictures. Obviously social media may be used as news sources as well as immediate fact checkers and help correct false information. They can even express solidarity and bring some reason and humanity. But they also intensify the pressures to “publish first and be damned”, raising the risks of bad judgment in selecting what to disseminate and what to stop.
They may also pollute the news with inflammatory comments, incitements to hatred, panicky messages or angry criticism of choices made by the newsroom. In the wake of the Westminster Bridge attack on March 22, 2017, an account identified by Twitter as a Russian bot used the photo of a hijab-wearing woman to fan islamophobia. “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking her phone”, said the post with the hashtag #BanIslam. Journalists must learn to stay on course. “I regret to say that social networks do not determine and will never determine what we must do“, said Fernando Mas, deputy director of Madrid’s El Independiente after the August 17, Barcelona truck attack on the Ramblas.
When Media Get it Wrong
Speculation remains a constant threat. During the Barcelona attacks too many media went wrong, says Spanish journalist Esther Miguel Trula, leading her to conclude that the Mossos de Esquadra, the Catalan security forces, and the police, via their twitter accounts, were “nearly the only places where reliable information was provided.”
A number of media – RTVE, TV3, EL Nacional de Cataluña, El Español, El Independiente, El Confidencial and The Independent – she writes, claimed for instance that one or two suspects of the attack were holed up in a restaurant, some even mentioned they were holding hostages. The Mossos officially crushed the rumors.
On 22 March 2017 in its reporting of the Westminster terror attack Channel 4 News wrongly identified the perpetrator while relying on one usually reliable source. Just one. The man named by the TV channel was in fact in prison. The incident reveals again that time pressures can lead to skipping even carefully drafted internal rules. “The Channel 4 incident acts as a timely reminder of the need to take care, check your fact, and only rely on a single source in the most exceptional of circumstances”, writes Jennifer Agate on 21 November 2017 in HoldTheFrontPage.
Once bitten, twice shy, many media have learnt to be cautious. They clearly indicate what “they know” and what “they don’t know”. They issue warnings on what is “unconfirmed” or “not witnessed by us” and dutifully cite their sources. But the first obligation – to be right rather than first – is not always respected.
Correcting mistakes quickly and visibly is especially crucial. Channel 4 News did so promptly but at the time of the Quebec Mosque attack on Friday, January 29, 2017 Fox News kept a wrong fact, that the suspect was “of Moroccan origin”, on its website after the Canadian police has put the record straight. The tweet appeared early on Monday afternoon. The US channel corrected the misreported information with a tweet and an update to the story on Monday evening but did not delete the previous tweet immediately. Meanwhile, the incriminated message had been retweeted more than 900 times, and liked about 1,600 times. It also had about 7,200 replies, many of them pointing out the inaccuracy and calling for a correction.
A subsequent tweet posted Monday evening noting the second person in custody had been cleared was retweeted only 72 times and had 162 likes. Although Refet Kaplan, the managing director for FoxNews.com, issued an apology in a Tuesday evening email, Kate Purchase, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s director of communications, issued a statement condemning the US channel.
“These tweets by Fox News dishonour the memory of the six victims and their families by spreading misinformation, playing identity politics, and perpetuating fear and division within our communities”, she said.
Despite a flurry of discussions for many years on the use of pictures and videos media continue to appear divided on what to do. Crude photos of victims were published in the wake of attacks in Barcelona. Red lines, according to the public and the authorities, were crossed.
In the wake of an attack the public and in particular those people who have been affected more directly (victims, parents of victims, witnesses, etc.) tend to be shocked by media decisions which even though they might appear insensitive are in fact legitimate and justifiable. Publishing pictures of the attacker might be decrypted as “glorifying terrorists” but such qualification largely depends on the kind of photograph that is being used and on the contextualization that is being provided.
It would be easy to rely on journalistic dogmas and automatic decisions. But this is not how journalism works. Time pressures and psychological factors intervene. Doubts are inevitable. In an interesting article the deputy editor of El Independiente confessed his perplexity after the Barcelona attacks and the way the newsroom hesitated on the use of graphic pictures of victims. “We decided to add two very crude sequences. We considered that we should not hide the consequences of terror. I had doubts. I had so much doubt that I continue having doubts. The reflection went on. We withdrew the pictures. I don’t know whether it is was the right decision”, he wrote.
Beyond Reporting of Terror Attacks
A number of more general ethical reflections have accompanied terrorism reporting. Firstly, the need to keep a sense of proportion: “Terrorism deaths are the single most heavily covered type of deaths per capita in the first pages of the New York Times compared to every other way that a human can die,” says Indira Lakshmanan on NPR. “This fuels the perception that we are living in some sort of a terrorist state out of proportion from the reality that it is.”.
Second, there is an awareness that Islamic terrorism is given much more attention to other forms of terrorism. “We ignore the terrorist threat from right-wing extremism at our peril,” Norwegian researcher Sindre Bangstad wrote in a March 7, 2017 in an opinion piece for OpenDemocracy.
Finally, the discussion has shifted from event-led and breaking news reporting to investigative and analytical forms of journalism: trying to understand the origins of radicalization and decoding the political impact of terrorism. Up to the point of reflecting on the role of the media in feeding hate? What has been the role of “radio poubelles” (trash radio), asked Quebec journalists after the January 2017 Mosque attack by a white supremacist.
A number of rowdy private radio stations have been accused of fanning a climate of stigmatisation of the Muslim community and of drumming up support for populist movements. “Intimidation, dubious jokes, demeaning words, the striking force and deprecatory content of Quebec radios have reached unimaginable heights,” writes Dominique Payette in the Montreal daily La Presse.
A final question points to a crucial issue: to what extent does dramatized media coverage create a call for illiberal measures? Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism, as Margaret Thatcher put it in reference to the IRA, the Irish Republican terrorists in the 1980s, but media hype and overreaction may also provide the oxygen for knee-jerk and excessive counter-terrorism measures. In her case, Thatcher introduced a clumsy strategy of half-censorship – forcing broadcasters like the BBC to substitute actual voices of terror group representatives with the voices of actors. It lasted only briely. Such actions can be double-edged, they risk doing the terrorists’ work by undermining the values of openness, liberty and rule of law which are the extremists’ targets.