Award 2018 Nominee
Should media report differently in the wake of attacks? Think about it and join the discussion!
After the Manchester attacks, the Swiss national broadcasting corporation decided not to broadcast any extra news programmes. The traditional TV news had extensively covered the facts, victims and reactions, why continue to report on it endlessly?
Editor-in-Chief Tristan Brenn explains the decision: ‘The overkill in Western Media play into the hands of the terrorists. They more than hit their target of spreading fear and panic through the images displayed on TV.
This is correct. Terrorists can continue to place as many bombs as they want, if the media does not report on them, their attacks will have failed. Not a single Jihadi will kill himself if he gets the silent treatment. If he will be ignored, he might as well stay alive.
But how far should the press go down this path? Joris Luyendijk commented after Manchester: ‘An information infrastructure has emerged in our societies over the last couple of years, in which journalists and the media are encouraged and financially rewarded to play the terrorists’ little game.’ He is completely right.
Does this mean that the media should have ignored the Bataclan, London, Brussels and Nice? No, of course not. But there is a spectrum of possibilities that range from desperate silence to the unbridled reporting that systematically inundates us.
For instance, is it wise to reveal lots of details about the perpetrator every time? Those who commit the attacks know that their full name and face will appear in practically all the newspapers, news sites and TV news reports all over Europe. That honour is usually only bestowed on a victorious presidential candidate of a large country. Are we willing to just give away that bonus?
Let’s have the discussion about how we, the media, can better deal with attacks.
Why is this debate so urgent?
When Europe was still being ravaged by attacks by the IRA in Northern Ireland, ETA in Spain or the Red Army Faction in Germany, there were intense debates about how the media ought to report on them. That debate is more topical now than ever before.
If certain types of reporting reward terrorism more than others, then we need to have the courage to stop and think of the methods used by the press. After all, excessive media attention can increase the sense of fear, elevate terrorists to the status of heroes and inspire others to new attacks.
And what appears in mainstream media, continues to live on social media where potential terrorists often take their inspiration. Sensational pictures do really well there. If there is a standard in the offing, it will guide decision-making. The same happened with the horror videos of the Caliphate: when the major news sites and TV stations refused them, they lost part of their value and instigated less fear.
The debate is already in full swing in other places. After the Nice attack, the big players in the French media landscape – Le Monde, Radio France Internationale, France 24, Europe 1 and BFM-TV – agreed to stop placing photos of attackers. Radio station Europe 1 decided to stop sharing their names as well. We need such agreements too.
Terrorists are demanding the status of heroes
It seems as if terrorists are literally asking to become famous. The drivers who killed in Nice and Berlin left their papers lying around the trucks they used to hit their victims. Manchester’s suicide bomber was carrying his debit card in his pocket. We saw the same pattern at Charlie Hebdo.
Were they really all plainly forgetful? In minutely prepped attacks, in which they even think about their outfit and hair style? There is no point in doing that when IS claims responsibility for another attack: they do not state their names and only refer to ‘a soldier of the Caliphate.’ No, we award them the attention that they so obviously crave. We fulfil their every whim.
And usually, the media go much further. Those who plan an attack, can safely assume that the whole world will write about their origin, family, school performance, love life, potential criminal record and what the neighbours thought of them. We eagerly dig up their brief life history with a degree of attention that they did not experience whilst they were alive.
Moreover, it is not just limited to journalistic attention. Governments too do not always seem to give much thought to the impact of their actions at such dramatic times. Do government leaders or even heads of state automatically have to address the population? Do the Eiffel tower, Brandenburg Gate and other iconic monuments need to be lit up differently every single time? Is that not excessive honour?
“You have no way of knowing whether those 72 virgins are indeed waiting for you in Paradise, but you are safe to assume that you control 72 monuments by pushing one button.”
Anno 2017 you, as a terrorist, have no way of knowing whether those 72 virgins are indeed waiting for you in Paradise, but you are safe to assume that you control 72 monuments by pushing one button.
All of a sudden, the terrorist becomes something of international concern. Suddenly, he counts. We are making it rather easy for him. We make it worthwhile to consider his suicide attack. He is a nobody who desperately wants to be a somebody, even if it is post-mortem, and we, the Western Media, are only too happy to oblige.
We ought not to do that. We should teach ourselves some sobriety when reporting on attacks. It should not mean a limit on the freedom of the press in the least. We can take inspiration from how the media has learnt in other areas to disseminate delicate information. What counts is finding the right balance between reporting and preventing worse events.
Media takes a more thoughtful approach to suicide
Most Western nations have a media code that determines responsible reporting about suicide. After all, research has shown that more serene reporting leads to significantly fewer copycats. For instance, the number of suicides on the Vienna metro dropped by no less than 75% after the Austrian centre for suicide prevention published a brochure of tips for the press.
Inspired by this action, the World Health Organisation drafted a summary of what to do and not to do for media professionals: don’t publish photographs or suicide notes, don’t report specific details of the method used, don’t glorify or sensationalise suicide, don’t use religious or cultural stereotypes, and do provide information on helplines.
Many Western states adopted it. Austria was followed by Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, the UK and the US.
These Codes can be used as an example
The perpetrators of practically all Jihadi terrorism in Europe were themselves killed. They blew themselves up or knew that they were very likely to be killed. This is what prevention officers have called a suicide cluster in other contexts, a wave of similar types of suicide committed by people who had been inspired by earlier, heavily publicised examples in the media.
Of course, there is a particularly big difference between (suicide) terrorists and people who take their own lives. Attackers are more driven by rage than despair. They do not wish to put an end to their suffering, they want to cause as much suffering as possible. Their aim is murder and terror. Even if attacks sometimes look like disguised suicide, it is inappropriate to reduce an attack to suicide – that is hurtful for the victims and painful for those who have been confronted with a classic case of suicide.
The point is not that suicide terrorists deserve our compassion because they are struggling with suicidal thoughts. The point is that the media code on responsible reporting of suicide works. Do we therefore not need something similar for suicide attacks?
When you know that there are more male than female copycats, young than old, poor than rich, alarm bells should be ringing. Suicide terrorists in Europe are also young males, predominantly from the margins of society.
In other words, the danger of suicidal contamination is very high. Should classic suicide helplines not diversify their work, to counteract the danger of copycats here too? Should we have focused prevention campaigns? Tricky questions, but they are not even being asked. The demonization does not allow for it.
In any case, there is an urgent need for a code of responsible journalism around the attacks. The press too can save lives.
What are the press’ do’s and don’ts in the wake of the attacks?
What could that advice look like?
I am making a careful attempt. Aspects of the existing media code for suicide could be useful:
– Do not publish suicide notes or videos
– Avoid sensationalising
– Focus on background, interpretation and nuance
– Avoid speculation, limit yourself to relevant and correct information
– Amplify information about helplines and shelters. Do not just refer to the traditional channels, but also to shelters for specific target groups (community groups, mosques, etc.).
And in the specific case of attacks, you could think of:
– Not showing photos of the perpetrator, only state his first name plus an initial
– Not publishing any propaganda material
– Limiting the number of eyewitness reports and amateur video images
– Referring to claims of responsibility without broadcasting them in full
– Treating attacks as criminal facts, not as military, cultural or theological facts: after all, that is the terrorist’s framing
– Being careful with extra news reports, special editions and uninterrupted live reports
It is not up to me to draw up the final code. That needs to happen in consultation. Journalists should sit around the table as soon as possible with prevention officers, terrorism experts and security services to devise a tool.