The Problem With Covering Terrorism

By its very nature, terrorism challenges normal narrative frames and processes. The basic facts themselves are often difficult to establish after a terrorist incident, much less analyze: What happened? Who did it? Why? What is the reaction of the authorities and the public? What policy or political change might it provoke? How can we report it without making it more likely to happen again?

This chapter looks at the challenges of covering terror events. Some of these are new problems, created by technological innovation or economic and political factors. Some are longstanding issues that have become much more complex in the digital environment, making good editorial practices more difficult to carry out.

Historical Coverage of Terrorism

Terrorism is always a relative term, and its application has changed over time. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once labeled Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid African National Congress party as a “terrorist” organization before later going on to urge his release. The American extreme left-wing group the Weathermen, founded in 1969, began as an anti-imperialist group that bombed government buildings and ended up as a counter-cultural cult. The nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) was highly organized along military lines which Thatcher also described as terrorist, but with whom she initiated negotiations. Hamas has won elections and has a strong social service network but has also carried out attacks, including suicide bombings on civilians. The American government describes Hamas as terrorist, while others such as Turkey are prepared to treat it as a political actor in the Middle East and give it support.

Because of the term’s subjective nature, some people argue terrorism should not be used at all by journalists. But semantics are only part of the problem. For journalists, part of the challenge has always been how to reflect the perspectives of the authorities and public in their own countries. This is only made more complex with international terrorism and transnational media. For example, this year Turkey was subject to a series of attacks by different groups killing civilians. The way those narratives are framed by Western news media has not been consistent, according to Azzam Tamimi, editor in chief of the London-based Arabic channel Al Hiwar:

Whereas the Islamic State [Daesh] is considered a menace, the PKK and its affiliates are seen as legitimate actors or even freedom fighters. Few Western journalists can resist the temptation to take sides on ideological or cultural basis. The inherited fear or hate of Islam and Muslims usually manifests itself.

Terrorism has always had a symbiotic relationship with news media, one that predates the internet. Journalist and terrorism expert Jason Burke points out that those involved in violent struggle soon realized the opportunity provided by the arrival of mass media:

In 1956, the Algerian political activist and revolutionary Ramdane Abane wondered aloud if it was better to kill 10 enemies in a remote gully “when no one will talk of it” or “a single man in Algiers, which will be noted the next day” by audiences in distant countries who could influence policymakers.

As Burke writes, the same technological advances such as communications satellites which created a globalized media also gave opportunities for expanded publicity for terrorism:

In 1972, members of the Palestinian Black September group attacked Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the first games to be broadcast live and the first to be the target of a terrorist attack. The cameras inevitably switched their focus from the sports to the ongoing hostage crisis.

The September 11th attacks were, of course, a watershed moment. Observing the attacks unfold in real time was a communal event, shared by tens of millions of people around the world. A report by Annenberg on journalism and terror published two years later recognized the internet had become a significant factor. It points out that the internet allowed the public to “aggregate bits of information” independently and extended “reach” for smaller media organizations. It also notes that “problematic information is now available on non-journalistic sites.”

Al-Qaeda also exemplified the way that terror organizations have become media producers as well as media subjects. Most famously, Osama Bin Laden made a series of videos that allowed him to speak through the world’s media. But as Burke has chronicled, from 2005 onwards with the expansion of the internet, the Al-Qaeda network with its widespread, diffuse organization of cells and affiliates prioritized the recording of its activities and the dissemination of its propaganda online. Some of this ended up in mainstream news media, such as the video of the beheading in 2004 of the American contractor Nick Berg in Iraq.

A few years later, the transformative effect of Web 2.0 and the meteoric rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks would utterly reshape that digital context. Although the core editorial concerns of the report would remain, the media landscape in which terror attacks now unfold is on a very different scale.

Terrorism in the age of instant news and social media is a “different beast,” said former BBC Global News director Richard Sambrook in an interview. He has worked through the last three decades and insists the subject is now more complex:

20 years ago reporting terror was simpler. You knew who had done it. A car bomb goes off outside Harrods, and the IRA communicate directly with code words. The police would know. The issues were more straightforward, and you knew who you were dealing with. Now it’s much more complicated. Terrorism is a different beast, and the fact that it is networked or that it is more likely to be indigenous raises a raft of issues.3

ISIS again raises the problem of how journalists define terror events. Acts committed in the name of ISIS don’t always have clear links with the core organization, and claims of responsibility are more tenuous. This amorphous form of terrorism raises the question of what other violent, ideologically motivated attacks on innocent civilians—designed to gain publicity for a cause and to create fear and reaction—fall under the label of terror. The 2016 attack on the gay nightclub in Orlando, the 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, and the 2016 Munich shopping center shooting were all very different kinds of events described as “terrorism” at some point. If we give a name to one incident, why not another?

The Challenging New Context For the Journalist and Audience

Social platforms are increasingly the place where terrorism is reported first. From ISIS beheadings to video from inside the Bataclan Paris nightclub, these sites are a key news player, sometimes shaping coverage.

There has been a fundamental shift, from news media having control over the flow of information to a more distributed set of sources and platforms. The journalist is no longer the primary gatekeeper. Today’s audiences have vastly more immediate and direct access to a greater volume of material and variety of sources online. The public can get information directly from other citizens, the authorities, or even terrorists themselves. The relative ease with which the news media are able to report events quickly and graphically—thanks to digital technology—means that audiences often report they feel overwhelmed and even repulsed by the onslaught of “bad news” events.

Around terror events, live broadcasting, and particularly television, remains the dominant news information source for a majority of the media-consuming public. However, over the last decade, those reports are becoming more reliant on social media. Coverage of the London bombings in 2005 featured grainy mobile phone video of survivors walking away from the wrecked train carriages down underground tunnels. In the wake of that, the BBC set up a user-generated content (UGC) hub specifically to gather and verify content created by citizens for use in its news.4 By the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, journalists were able to find imagery and information from citizen photography sites such as Flickr and the 900 tweets published every minute. Traditional news distribution agencies such as Reuters became clearing houses for UGC. AP appointed its first social media editor in 2012.

In 2016, the first phase of broadcast coverage of the attacks in urban centers such as Paris, Brussels, Munich, and Ankara was dominated by both video and stills harvested from social media. ABC News’s international managing editor Jon Williams, who has been making broadcast news for more than 30 years, points out that this is an historical change in the visibility of news events:

Clearly in the 1970s and 80s very often incidents would happen without pictures. In 1996 the only imagery of the IRA Manchester bombing came from CCTV some time after the event. Today there would be any number of people recording that on cellphones and inundating social media with it in real time.5

New technologies also provide opportunities for other kinds of enhanced visual input such as the live Google map created by one journalist during the Mumbai attacks. The arrival of live video on social networks means that the citizen (as well as the journalist and terrorist) can become a social network broadcaster. As discussed in the second and third sections, this immediate streamed access creates editorial issues for news organizations and ethical problems for the platforms themselves. At the moment, their use around terror incidents is sporadic but becoming more common.

Social media networks also mean terror news intrudes directly into our intimate media sphere. The same profiles we use for personal content or the consumption of entertainment, routine information, and social exchange are now a space filled with dramatic and shocking images and messages. News is increasingly consumed on mobile devices and smartphones, making the news part our personal, socially connected lives. In their interaction with media, it is not surprisingly that people react more personally, emotionally, and instantly than ever before.6

Framing the Narrative: Definitions of “Terrorism”

There is enormous pressure with a major breaking story to come up with a fresh line amidst the surge of information. Audience expectations of instant reportage combined with the increasing market competition add to that need for journalists to work quickly and at the limits of their abilities and resources. This rush to certainty can lead to false leads from mainstream as well as social media. Journalists and audiences inevitably seek to fit terrorist incidents into a pattern. This is exacerbated by group think among journalists, especially on social media. In the race to publish and in the midst of a dangerous situation it is difficult to maintain a critical attitude to those dispensing authoritative information.

One manifestation of this is the expert commentator, who is often chosen as much for their closeness to a TV studio as for their relevant insights. Live broadcasters are developing a language that relativizes its statements: “this is what is being reported,” “this is what we are being told,” “reports on social media suggest.” The danger is the audience does not understand the precise nature of the qualifications involved.

Adding qualifiers such as “appears to be” or “potential” to “terrorism” is highly risky in a breaking news story. “Terrorism” has traditionally been seen as an external threat, such as 9/11, but as the London Bombings of 2005 and many of the incidents of 2016 show, there are “home-grown” terrorists who draw upon international networks as well as “domestic” terrorists with a local or national agenda. Individuals who carry out terror attacks are not necessarily a “lone wolf.” Someone with mental health issues might also be a terrorist. The descriptions are rarely clear. Section two makes the case for greater reflection on terminology and sets out some principles.

One option is to never use the word. Al Jazeera English made it clear that its journalists should not use the term, along with others such as “jihadist.” BBC guidelines do not ban the use of the term, but admit it is problematic:

The word "terrorist" itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as “bomber,” “attacker,” “gunman,” “kidnapper,” “insurgent,” and “militant.” We should not adopt other people's language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.

This approach has not changed significantly in principle in response to recent developments in terrorism or media technology.

ABC News in America has a similar approach. International Managing Editor Jon Williams says their journalists should not use the word “terrorism” except when quoting other people:

Words matter. We would not have described [the 2016 London Russell Square stabbing] as a “potential terror incident.” We would just describe it as a stabbing and have put it in the context of other incidents. Our modus operandi is to do what it says on the tin. We would wait to see how someone [in authority] characterized it. With the San Bernardino incident our assumption was that with the prevalence of mass shootings in America we should assume it’s just a shooting. It began as a workplace shooting but came into the context of people who had been radicalized but it still requires someone to characterize it as “domestic” terror or “inspired by Isis.”7

As Sambrook points out, deciding whether to use the word “terror” is only part of the problem:

I think it’s a bit of a cop out to simply say you won’t use the word “terror” or “terrorism.” There are some actions to which that term will apply. I think there is a neat way through this. Simply describe what has happened and report what people have said. Recent incidents have shown how many factors are potentially involved. Is the killer suffering from mental illness, or if he shouts “Alluha Akbar” does that make it a Jihadist? In the end report what has happened and what people say and let the viewer draw their own conclusions 8

Above all, the growth of terrorists ascribing a religious motivation to their actions has raised fresh dangers of associating neutral words such as Islamic or Muslim with terrorism. While the terrorist may make religious claims, there is no reason for journalists to treat that uncritically.

Avoiding Harm: The News Media’s Relationship to Terrorism

Terrorists are now media producers themselves. Andre Brevik was acutely conscious of the role the media would have in promoting his beliefs. He sent a 1,500-word manifesto to more than a thousand people just before his first bomb went off. ISIS has an extensive media production capacity, creating videos and articles that are distributed through highly-developed social media activities. They use the kidnapped British journalist John Cantile as a subject of their videos and then as a presenter. Much of the material is English-language targeted at potential sympathizers or recruits online internationally. To tell the story of what the terrorist is thinking, saying, and doing it is often useful to use this material. But the danger is that even in a critical context this effectively relays and amplifies the terrorist’s message. As Erica Chenoweth explains:

What’s important is that the imitative effects of mass shootings and terror attacks may not be unrelated to one another. The blurry distinction between what constitutes mass shootings versus acts of terror means that, functionally, those motivated to obtain notoriety or political power through graphic violence may not really care whether their competitors are “terrorists,” “shooters” or something else.

There is always a danger of media giving terrorists details about security operations that help them improve their work. This is particularly relevant in the midst of a terrorist operation. Live video or pictures of a scene may endanger security forces or hamper their work. It is essential that, when the public is at risk, the news media works closely with security officials.

There is also a wider problem that those authorities, especially politicians, frame their commentary on terror events to suit their own interests. Journalists have an obligation to report what powerful people say—but they do not have an obligation to replicate their perspective. As British journalist and former London Times editor Simon Jenkins argues, politicians have their own agendas:

To the media, terrorism is meat and drink. To politicians, it is an opportunity to flex muscles, brandish guns, boast revenge. Talk of war adds ten points to an approval rating. It saved George Bush as it is now saving France’s François Hollande. Counter-terror theory may advise caution and an emphasis on normality. Political necessity counsels the opposite; the trumpets and drums of battle. It requires the terrorist’s deeds to be amplified, headlined, exaggerated to justify a warlike response.

The sheer volume of terror news may make further attacks more likely. Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia argues that increased coverage of terror attacks correlates to an increase in their frequency.9 He also argues that terror tactics that have greater media impact, such as suicide bombings, could lead to their increased popularity. The French political philosopher and expert on the causes of terror Olivier Roy argues that media coverage helps extremist organizations in recruiting and mobilizing terrorists. He says that the framing of terror events by politicians and the media “valorizes the up rootedness of uprooted people” and provides them with a sense of belonging and meaning.

Language is critical because the public make judgments about risk based on the terminology involved. Just because something creates “terror” does not make it a “terrorist” event. This Daily Mail Online headline uses the word “terror’—but the sub-head makes it clear that it was not “terror-related’:

At what point does a “hate crime” such as the Charleston church shooting become categorized as “terrorism”? Brevik had active links with extreme right-wing groups and used his actions to promote his anti-Islamic, anti-liberal ideology. His convictions included “terrorism.” However, in the media, he was most often referred to as a mass murderer or mass killer, not a terrorist. Likewise, Ali Sonboly, the 2016 Munich shooter was described by police as “inspired” by Brevik, but they said the incident was not “terror-related.” Sonboly had been receiving psychiatric treatment, raising the definitional problem around terror and mental health. In considering the mix of motives, it does seem that mainstream media has a propensity to describe events as “terror” if they have some element of jihadist or Islamist ideological ingredient.

Even if a recognized terrorist organization does claim responsibility, journalists may need to fine-tune the language. There was evidence that the 2016 Wurzburg train attacker was “inspired” by ISIS propaganda rather than controlled by them, yet ISIS still claimed it as part of their campaign in Europe. The Ansbach bomber Mohammed Daleel had stronger links to ISIS including a propaganda video he made pledging allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His preparation for the bombing was more sophisticated and planned. Does that make him more of a terrorist? What significance should journalists have given to the fact that several of this summer’s German attackers were asylum seekers or refugees? As soon as perpetrators are identified with a minority group, the danger is that community will be impugned in a way that does not happen when perpetrators are seen to be from the majority population. In a political environment where in many regions there are tensions over ethnic identity, immigration, and cultural values, it is even more important that the news media does not make unqualified connections between race, religion, and terror acts.

Verification and Transparency

There are some obvious problems created by this new engagement from the audience on terror events. There is a great deal of misleading or false audience-created content, much of it highly reactive and subjective, and there is an increasing number of fake news sites that deliberately spread this content to attract traffic. Social networks are somewhat self-correcting and are moderated, but this can be delayed—by which time falsehoods or false impressions have spread, uncorrected.

A missing student Sunil Tripathi was named on Reddit in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, leading to a manhunt before police were able to rule him out. But in that four-hour period many journalists disseminated the rumor on their own social media accounts. They appeared to accept a lower standard of verification then they would have done for publication on their regular news channels or sites.

The primary function of journalism is still to get facts right. The volume of social media content and the fact that some of it is inaccurate or misleading should not make professional journalists complacent. News media content is now blended into the audience’s news feeds and audiences often do not discriminate between “amateur” and “official” or journalistic content online. Research shows that on social media people trust their peers as much as the news media (although that includes their peers sharing news media content).10

In this context, it is even more important that the news media distinguish itself by providing reliable information. Statistics show mainstream journalists are still trusted to varying degrees, depending to the medium, the user’s age, and the perceived partisanship of the news brand. One of the key variables is their perception of the accuracy and impartiality of the journalism.11 Verification of facts and the correct expression of “what we know to be true” is under enormous pressure as breaking news accelerates.

As discussed in the next section, editorial guidelines at most major news organizations have since been revised to make it clear that the same standards must apply to gathering material from or posting material on social media.


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