Tips and resources for journalists covering ISIS

Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Journalists covering ISIS have a lot to consider - how to stay secure on the ground, what kind of images to feature in your reporting, which name to use for the group and more.

IJNet has compiled a list of tips and resources that can enrich your coverage of the extremist group, whose movements are occupying the news spotlight.

What’s in a name?

The first thing you need to think about when you cover ISIS is what to call them. When ISIS first emerged on the scene a few years ago, it went by the name "Daesh" داعش which is an Arabic acronym for The “Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.”

In English, some refer to the group as ISIS (The Islamic state of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant), which is the term used by the U.S. government. Other names include IS (The Islamic State), which is the name the group uses to describe itself in its English propaganda material.

The name of this group has caused a lot of stir among journalists. Recently, the French government declared that it will only refer to the group by its Arabic name “Daesh,” and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius encouraged the media to follow suit.

Agence France-Presse refers to the group as "the Islamic State group" or "Islamic State organization," and as "IS jihadists" in headlines and news alerts. The Associated Press refers to it as “The Islamic State.”

Whatever name you choose, make sure you're consistent and that you're using the term the organization publishing your story prefers.  

Deepen your understanding

To enrich your understanding of the history and make-up of this group, make sure to check out the following resources:

 An online documentary: Vice News recently released a well-praised documentary about the inner workings of ISIS, in which filmmaker Medyan Dairieh was able to gain access to the group through his deep contacts in the region.

 Maps: recently curated a group of maps to tell the story of ISIS and “hint at what may come next.”

 Debunking myths: Vox also ran an article in which they list “myths” about ISIS and explain why they should be debunked. Some myths include that ISIS hates female soldiers, and that it's a Syrian rebel group.


Syria and ISIS-controlled areas has become some of the most dangerous places for journalists. AFP, which is the only international news agency with a bureau in Damascus, has stopped sending any journalists into rebel-held parts of Syria.

In a recent post in its Correspondent Blog, AFP said it will not accept any work from freelancers traveling to places where the outlet wouldn’t send its own staff, sending a reminder that no story is worth a journalist’s life.

The Washington Post made a similar decision.

“While we continue to send staff correspondents to Syria, we no longer accept freelance work from that war zone,’’ said Douglas D. Jehl, foreign editor of the Post.

If you get assigned to the field, make sure to get the proper security training. There are also a number of online resources you can check out including the Rory Peck Trust’s Risk Assessment and the Committee to Protect Journalists' security guide.

Use of ISIS material

ISIS’ sophisticated use of social media forces organizations to decide whether images of death should be considered newsworthy or dismissed as a propaganda tool. There is no perfect answer, and media outlets are still grappling with it. AFP said it makes this decision on a case-by-case basis.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) explained its editorial decision about the usage of ISIS media in this video, saying there is no “single-one-rule fits-all” for every scenario. In the case of the beheading video of American journalist James Foley, CBC decided that to reach a balance between maintaining the dignity of the murdered journalist and also informing the public, it only featured select still images of the video.

Culling social media

With the absence of journalists in ISIS-controlled areas, social media becomes the go-to source for many journalists, and verification is the name of the game. The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) recently ran a piece listing tips on how journalists can use social media to cover ISIS.

Using verification tools is one way of checking social media content before publishing it, according to CJR. Among the recommended tools are Storyful and Dataminr.

To verify social content quickly, it can be helpful to identify a region's usual sharing platforms beforehand (in Syria's case and places with limited Internet access, usually towns' Facebook pages or YouTube channels), so you can quickly pinpoint the original source, Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, a website that reports on Syria and elsewhere using open-source tools, told CJR.

Main image CC-licensed via Karl-Ludwig Poggemann.