Covering the many facets of violent extremism is one of the toughest challenges journalists face today. UNESCO’s new handbook, “Terrorism and the Media,” is designed to help them navigate these intricacies.
The primer states that terrorism and the fight against it “have become major elements of domestic and international politics, with the media firmly on the front lines, especially when attacks target civilian populations.”
The 110-page manual is not just for those who specialize in national security. In today’s world, any journalist can be thrust into reporting on a terrorist act.
Case in point: Christopher Hope, the London Daily Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, was in the Parliament press gallery on the afternoon of March 22 when “a big bang” drew his attention.
He glanced out a window and began tweeting: “Shots fired outside Parliament. Loud explosion then shooting. Man lying shot outside gates to Parliament. ... Armed police now arriving.”
Hope’s eyewitness account of the attack by British-born Khalid Masood along Westminster Bridge swept cyberspace. The UNESCO manual provides tips, resources and research suitable for veterans like Hope and for media newcomers alike.
The author, Belgian journalist and university professor Jean-Paul Marthoz, uses case studies and a heavy dose of history to examine media coverage of terrorism.
The first chapter explores the different forms of terrorism and provides a list of terrorist organizations.
Marthoz makes two important points: “Religiously-inspired terrorism attracts the most attention, and particularly attacks instigated by organizations claiming to follow Islam, which generate the widest media coverage.”
Additionally, media often fail to report that “these violent actions often strike Muslim-dominant populations, either directly, as in Iraq and Syria, or indirectly.” He notes Muslims were among victims in the Brussels bombings of March 2016 and a few months later in the Nice, France attack.
Certain questions come to mind: How thoroughly do news organizations cover cyberterrorism, gangster terrorism and narco-terrorism? How do journalists avoid clichés or stereotypes when reporting on terror groups? When is it appropriate to use the labels terrorist, jihadist or combatant?
Chapter 5 takes readers into unchartered territory: How to interact with terrorist groups, including visiting areas they control, interviewing them face to face, reporting on ongoing investigations and covering trials of those charged with crimes.
How do news managers decide whether to pursue or publish interviews with terrorists?
The handbook lists basic rules. Among them:
Remain completely in control of the journalistic mission, and refuse any limits on questioning that the terrorist group would like to set.
Favor a documentary format over a conventional question-and-answer interview, which provides less scope for the introduction of context, complexity or corrections to the statements of the interviewees.
Clearly and transparently explain to the public the reasons for which the interview was requested and the conditions in which it was conducted.
Correct the false or fallacious statements that may have been uttered by the interviewees and give voice to the other players involved (authorities, victims, etc.)
Chapter 6 explores safety issues and increasing risks journalists face from executions, kidnappings and hacking of their cellphones and laptops. “Today, terrorist hostility towards journalists has become the norm,” writes Marthoz. There is a link to the updated version of Reporters Without Borders' “Safety Guidelines for Journalists” in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.
In the foreword, Frank La Rue, UNESCO's assistant director-general for communication and information, describes what media should – and should not – do in the wake of a terrorist event.
[Media] must keep a global perspective, and pay attention to the words they use, the examples they cite, and the images they display.
They must avoid speculation and finger-pointing in the immediate confusion following an attack when nothing is known, yet the demand for information is perhaps the strongest of all.
They must consider carefully the fact that there is something inherent in terrorism as a violent act that provokes a fear in many that is far disproportionate to the actual level of risk.
They must do all of this while ensuring they don’t put themselves or their staff in harm’s way in the pursuit of a story.
And most of all, they must avoid fostering division, hatred and radicalization at both margins of society.
Another resource worth checking out: Rory Peck Trust has posted a new, interactive risk assessment course designed for freelancers, but can be useful to anyone operating in hot zones. The course contains quizzes, videos and downloads and is available in English, Arabic and Persian for free.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Julian Schüngel.