Apart from sensationalizing the perpetrator, they give the sense that the individual was operating in isolation. In fact, it is difficult to find any examples of terrorists not influenced to some degree by the messaging of terror groups even if their actions were not explicitly controlled or directed.
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Likewise, the distinction between mental health and terror is rarely clearcut. The London Russell Square stabber had been receiving treatment in a psychiatric hospital, for example. But it is arguable that anyone who believes in killing innocent people for an ideological cause has a dysfunctional psychology.
Mainstream news style guides do not refer to this dilemma specifically. Jordan says this is an area where guidance is still evolving:. The mental health issue regarding terror is a comparatively new problem and we are talking with other standards people to try to create guidelines.
But by its nature it is complex. So as usual, we should avoid vague terms and only report facts. Language matters because it conditions the public acceptance, for example, of negotiations with extremist groups as political or military actors. The attacker, Zakaria Bulhan, was arrested immediately after the incident occurred at around p.
By 11am the following day, the police were effectively ruling out terror. The initial prominence of the story—and its later drop down the running order—is not necessarily a failure of journalism; it reflects the development of the story through time. This was a tragic incident resulting in the death of one woman and five others being injured.
Early indications suggest that mental health was a factor in this horrific attack. However, we are keeping an open mind regarding the motive and terrorism remains one line of inquiry being explored. With the benefit of hindsight, we would not have given the story such prominence, but at the time it was right to treat it so seriously even though we did not have absolute confirmation that it was terrorism.
When the story broke we got in extra people to prepare our morning report because the 1am statement by the police mentioned terror as a factor and they repeated that later. Of course, radicalized people are often psychologically vulnerable anyway. The police had also mentioned that he was Norwegian with Somali heritage, which suggested they were considering a terror motive, too.
We took our cue from the fact that such a senior officer was still mentioning the possibility of terrorism. As one producer on a news channel says, the fear of missing out on a story surfacing on social media can lead to the temptation to cover it before significant details are confirmed:. As it turned out, it was a domestic dispute. But the news media is not a tracking system for online activity. All the newsrooms spoken to for this report insist that they apply the same editorial standards to social media as to any other source.
As the CNN guidelines state:.
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Citizen-generated reports are subject to the same strict review process that CNN applies to traditional reporting before they are included in CNN stories. The best news media encourages interaction and listens and responds. He posts smartphone footage and replies to comments. Journalists say that while much of the feedback can be bland or unhelpful, it can help give a sense of what the public misunderstands and so encourage journalists to address those gaps.
Covering the refugee crisis live from the field in its early phase, I got many comments saying that these were not real refugees because they were almost all men. I reflected on that and asked the refugees where the women and children were. They pointed out that often the men go ahead to prepare the way for their families. So although the images were of men, many were in effect, travelling ahead of their families. I then made sure to make that point on social media but also in my reporting.
Sometimes the public knows more than the journalist about an aspect of a story. They might have eyewitness accounts, local knowledge, or specialist insights. Social media can provide perspectives and information not available through the usual channels or sources and it can provide them quickly. Tapping into the social media of groups traditionally marginalized by mainstream media helps the journalist and the public understand the context of the extremist individuals who might draw upon those cultures.
There is increasing evidence that those marginalized communities feel misrepresented by mainstream media. Paying attention to their online voice—albeit not always representative—can add to overall understanding for the journalist and audience. Editors, too, should take the context of social media into account when making judgments around framing narratives. Just because posts on social media are often confused, misleading, or ill-informed does not mean they should be dismissed.
This is especially true now that news coverage itself is subject to constant online critique. With one tweet about the Iranian background of one of the recent attackers, the replies criticized The Guardian for being racist to even mention it, and other people criticized The Guardian for trying to suppress information that he was an ISIS fighter. But these also raise valid points that can contribute to reflection in the newsroom about the framing of terror narratives. Reporting on terror events must also be sensitive to security considerations. Journalists have a duty to report as fully as possible but in a terror-related scenario the news media has a responsibility to avoid causing harm.
Journalists can legitimately not report facts if doing so would increase risks or hamper a security operation. This means responding to requests from the authorities to not report particular facts or not to show certain images. There should always be a due process within the news organization of making that decision.
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Ideally, the fact of any decision to restrict reporting should be reported. During the school siege in Beslan, Chechnya, the BBC decided to go on a time delay for its live feed because of the danger of showing graphic imagery of hostages including children.
At the same time broadcasters were regulating themselves. It also did not air an audio interview it recorded with the hostage-takers themselves until after the incident was over. We have to move fast. But are we undermining the investigation? Are we being manipulated? We had several emergency meetings during the day to debate what to do.
Transparency about making those judgments helps build the understanding and confidence of the audience.
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Clearly, journalists cannot give a running commentary on all their editorial decisions, but a similar approach could be adopted to that when embedded with the military during conflicts, as suggested in BBC guidelines :. We should normally say if our reports are censored or monitored or if we withhold information, and explain, wherever possible, the rules under which we are operating. Journalists have a civic duty to cooperate in the interests of public safety, but this does not mean automatically complying with police or security requests.
The seizing of the laptop of BBC journalist Secunder Kermani—who had made contacts with extremists—appeared to challenge in principle the idea that journalists can ever talk to terrorists or their associates. These judgments are hard at a practical level with breaking news. Journalists now have access to real-time live video and images of alleged participants instantly uploaded on social media.
The news media should not wait for guidance before assessing whether using material might cause harm. Showing the outside of a building where an incident is taking place might, for example, give the terrorist information about deployment of security forces. Clear lines of communication with the police are vital. As one senior broadcast journalist said, there can be a moment when the natural desire to cover a breaking story clashes with security imperatives:. During recent shootings in Munich, the local police tweeted several requests that everyone refrain from speculation, and also that people stopped showing live pictures of police positions.
For local media especially, the relationship with police can be mutually beneficial. During the Lindt Cafe siege , Channel Seven had remarkable access to police operations because they agreed to give them oversight of their picture feeds. The police were able to use the material to assess what was happening. The broadcasters in turn had to agree not to show sensitive images live, to have a time delay on their broadcast feed, and to keep some material back until the siege was over.
There is also a long-term issue about how detailed media coverage might help terrorists improve their operational effectiveness.
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