This paper has set out a range of problems in reporting on terrorism that are practical, political, ethical, and structural. This is an evolving issue as both the nature of terrorism and media environment continue to change. This paper has also highlighted good practice and innovation that suggests progress is not just possible, but is already happening. Yet we need a process of self-critical debate both within newsrooms and between the news media and other people involved in these narratives.
The practical problem is of improving accuracy and providing better-informed context. It is particularly difficult with limited resources and rapidly multiplying sources and platforms. The same technologies that give journalists the power to report quicker and more extensively also speed up the news cycle and fill the public sphere with confusing, false, and complex information. Yet verification can be improved by adopting better techniques and insisting on standards across all platforms and under all circumstances. Greater transparency is a key attitudinal change that will help improve the search for truth and build trust.
The political problems are harder to solve. Journalists must understand the way they frame these stories has an impact on individuals, communities, and public policy. The fact news media gives publicity to the terrorist is a problem that cannot be completely resolved. But journalism can be created in ways that reduce the propaganda effect for either the terrorist or the panicked politician. By showing more empathy for the people involved and including more constructive narratives of resilience and understanding, the news media can at least counter the sense of fear and hopelessness terror news can induce.
The technology companies that provide platforms for the public and journalists to discuss and debate terrorism must do much more to improve how they filter and distribute information. There must be a more productive dialogue between the platforms and the news media about how their relationship can work better for the public good. Promoting more “good” journalism would be a start. In the same way the news media has to accept a wider responsibility for effects of reporting on terror, the digital giants must also recognize they are not just data or tech companies. They are part of the creation of narratives and formation of public opinion.
It is important we get this right. Trust in American media has plummeted to new lows. At a time when journalism is facing an economic crisis, we must rebuild the public’s confidence. Consumers have so many alternatives to mainstream news media and so many distractions from journalism overall, we need to prove our worth. Terrorism is a key testing ground. Improving coverage of terrorism is important because violent extremism is a significant issue and symptomatic of wider problems around the world. The case for more intelligent, informed, and socially responsible reporting of terror is not just a moral plea. It is a chance to show journalism remains a vital part of modern society.