One of the most challenging aspects of journalism is reporting terrorism. The journalist is saddled with the responsibility of covering terror events without unknowingly feeding the situation. This means that the choice of words and framing of story might end up worsening the situation by instigating a spiral of terror attacks. This way, the journalist has not played the watchdog role but what could be described as the ‘terror dog’ role. Learning how to report terror without fanning the flames of terror is a very essential step in excelling in this sensitive aspect of journalism. In this interesting piece by Paul Chadwick posted on The Guardian UK, details of how to report terror without feeding it are explained.
Reporting in Terror Without Feeding It
As the UK ached with the suffering inflicted by two terrorist attacks in quick succession, some readers expressed a feeling that is as understandable as it must be widespread: just let it stop.
The images, descriptions and background information about the London Bridge attack, which journalists worked hard to gather, were thought by some to worsen the suffering and even to assist the terrorists.
“Get those names and photos of those murderous cowards off your front page,” wrote one reader. “Fame, even posthumous, is what they want, and currently newspapers and other news sources are giving them exactly that,” said another.
A third reader recognised the importance of the news but wanted better warnings, not only on distressing images but on articles containing descriptions of the attack: “I seem to recall the Guardian using these disclaimers before, and I know they still do for graphic videos, so I’m not sure why detailed accounts of stabbings – by eyewitnesses who are still in shock – shouldn’t receive the same treatment.”
These are matters of degree and of judgment. I believe the Guardian has been consistently making good judgments in testing circumstances. For example, the video on the website of the police shooting dead the three perpetrators did not begin automatically, contained a clear warning of what to expect, and was less graphic than it might have been.
I asked the deputy editor, Paul Johnson, about the Guardian’s overall approach, and he responded: “We have well established guidelines around the use of terror photographs – including that they should not be used in any way that is gratuitous or glorifies terror. Balancing that, there is significant public interest around the identities and background of perpetrators, the role of the security services and the reaction of politicians. Much of our reporting seeks to uncover the journeys that end in such violence.
“On the site, we use perpetrators’ photographs according to news value, often dispersed in a carousel of other photographs. [A carousel is a jargon term for a moving cycle of images.] “In print, there have been 14 editions of the newspaper since the Manchester bombing. We have led on terror 10 times and on the front page we have used just one photograph of an attacker – and that as a single column [6 June]. On three occasions we have led with photographs of victims.”
When the images of perpetrators resemble mugshots they have an apt criminal connotation. I believe that a ban on naming perpetrators or showing their images would be counterproductive. Identifying them can prompt people to come forward with information which may assist investigations. But, as most advice on media coverage of terrorism suggests, it is important not to glamorise terrorists or allow them to seem antiheroes or “masterminds”. The better coverage avoids using terrorists’ self-circulated images, which tend to show them uniformed, draped in flags, displaying propaganda signs, or affecting a pious religiosity so as to associate a faith with a crime.
The images and stories about victims, those who courageously fight back, who steadfastly bear witness, who calmly give aid and comfort to the injured and bereaved – all this needs to be gathered and presented in ways that take into account human dignity, vulnerability, fresh grief. But it is all necessary journalism, as explained in the academic report Fanning the Flames: Reporting Terror in a Networked World: “Journalism around terror events also has a role in mediating the emotional impact for the audience. There is an element of useful ritual about the creation of instant shrines at the scene of incidents, the memorial services, and the expressions of condolence. Social media and platforms now play a part in that, with special hashtags or profile flags to show solidarity. By showing this process of grieving, the news media helps communities recover from the trauma.”
(This article was first published on The Guardian UK)