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Reporting on terrorism without spreading terror

by Lauren Williams
11 April 2017
To succeed, terrorists need the news. Same with democracies. How should journalists respond? Lauren Williams thinks reporters need to stick to the facts and avoid the temptation to make people more frightened, even though fear sells. 

By now, we are all familiar with the events of 22 March in London. Most of us would also be aware of a similar terrorist attack in Stockholm on 7 April, though it received less media attention.

Each case, London in particular, gives us an opportunity to reflect on some ethical challenges journalists face in reporting on terror attacks in Western nations.

Terrorism and media coverage

In London, 52-year-old Khalid Masood drove his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before running into the grounds of the Palace of Westminster armed with two knives. He stabbed a police officer before law enforcement shot him in the chest. Masood died from a single gunshot at the scene.

Three other people died in the attack, while more than 50 were injured.

Almost immediately after the incident occurred, Scotland Yard declared it a terrorist attack. A day later, ISIS claimed responsibility. A statement by Islamic State news agency Amaq said:
The perpetrator of the attacks yesterday in front of the British parliament in London is an Islamic State soldier and he carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of the coalition.

It is not known how Masood was connected to or inspired by Islamic State, if at all. Although he had a chequered criminal history, converted to Islam at one point and emerged as a peripheral figure in case around violent extremism before the existence of Islamic State, he was never part of any active terrorist investigation.

In total, Masood’s attack lasted 82 seconds. And in retrospect, with all due respect to the victims and their families, the scale of the attack was minor when compared with others.

By attributing blame on ISIS from the outset, Scotland Yard gave license to the media to escalate coverage out of all proportion.

Yet the media went berserk. The Australian newspaper dedicated seven pages to the event. For days afterwards, there was rolling coverage and live blogs.

In truth, any understanding we may gain into Masood’s motivations for his actions probably died with him. It is up to investigators to determine whether this was a lone wolf terrorist attack inspired by some greater cause or the crime of someone who simply got angry or had mental health issues.

The event was not dissimilar to the tragic incident of 22 January in Melbourne, when 26-year-old Dimitrious Gargasoulas rammed a car into a crowd of people in Bourke Street Mall, killing five, including a baby, and injuring 37 others after being involved in an earlier stabbing incident. Although covered within Australia, this incident received far less international attention.

Without the ability to be broadcast on a mass scale, terrorists’ ability to instill fear – to terrorise – becomes mute.

The same is true for the more recent attack in Stockholm, where coverage ramped up significantly after the city mayor described it as terrorism – although at no stage did ISIS claim responsibility.  

By contrast, London was declared a terrorist incident from the start. By attributing blame on ISIS from the outset, Scotland Yard gave license to the media to escalate coverage out of all proportion.

Terrorists need the media

Essentially, terrorism is an act of communication, as Alex P Schmid and J de Graaf, so eloquently argued in Violence as Communication: Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media . The U.S Department of Defense define it as:
The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.
Without the ability to be broadcast on a mass scale, terrorists’ ability to instill fear – to terrorise – becomes mute.
By providing such a disproportionate platform to the crimes of the London attacker, the media were all but doing the terrorists’ work for them. They became accomplices to their crimes.

By covering terrorist attacks at all, are the media in fact aiding and abetting the terrorists’ aims? 

Whether this is done so unwittingly or not is debatable. Fear sells.
An act of terror is certainly newsworthy. The public have a right to know about threats to their wellbeing and safety. Perhaps they even have the right to be informed to a point where they can assess for themselves whether the terrorists’ aims and messages have validity. After all, there are examples when media coverage of terrorism has generated sympathy and added legitimacy to a cause. The Palestine Liberation Organisation is one example, Che Guevara is another. Sometimes, terrorists come to be seen as freedom fighters.  

Responsible reporting

 This raises ethical questions for media makers. A complete media blackout of terrorist incidents – like what we see in Russia – is seen as undemocratic and against the spirit of a free press. Margaret Thatcher attempted to enforce a media blackout of IRA terrorism events, calling for media outlets to starve the terrorist of “the oxygen of publicity”. On the flipside, should media knowingly assist in the dissemination of propaganda and fear?
Does the terrorist have the right to have their message heard and understood at all? And if so, given the terrorists’ dependence on media as a disseminator of that message, how much airtime should they get? By covering terrorist attacks at all, are the media in fact aiding and abetting the terrorists’ aims?
The only answer must be in proportionate coverage. Coverage that does not capitalise on fear, nor deny the facts.
Whether or not Masood was actually a terrorist is beside the point. His actions were regarded as such by the general population and claimed by the terrorists themselves. And the media helped to make sure we all knew what they stood for.
Larry Grossmann, president of NBC News once said:

The job of the press is not to worry about the consequences of its coverage, but to tell the truth . . .  As much as those of us as in the press would like to be popular and loved, it is more important that we are accurate and fair . . . and let the chips fall where they may.

But perhaps when we recognise the media itself has been enlisted as a tool for propaganda, we may be inclined to think about the consequences of how we report on terror to a far greater extent.

Lauren Williams is a reporter and producer at ABC, the former foreign editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon and the Managing Editor of Forward Syria. She is the author of a Lowy Institute analysis, ISIS Propaganda and the Mainstream Media.


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