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Terrorism and mass media

Mass media can provide the publicity which terrorists seek. Does the traditional mass media in the UK, then, inadvertently advance terrorist objectives? That was among the questions posed by research by the London-based defence and security think-tank RUSI, launched in a webinar yesterday and released today.

Written by Jessica White, a Research Fellow in RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict group, it was commissioned by the Met Police; and Jessica White and Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu were among the webinar speakers. The paper found that the media can amplify the negative impacts of terrorism and collective public fear; as journalists are ‘not neutral’, how they frame their reports can have an impact. And mass media reporting can contribute to imitation of terrorism, by ‘copycats’; such as, may encourage use of a particular method of attack (for example, aircraft hijackings, much publicised and in vogue in the 1970s).

The report called for ‘discourse and framing’ to be ‘accurate, balanced, unsensational and contextual’; and asked that ’emotive language’ should be avoided. To glamourise, or demonise, perpetrators of attacks could encourage imitation or perpetuate prejudices.

Reporting on terrorism needs to be proportionate, the report concluded. “Overemphasising the threat of terrorism amplifies its negative impact and may inadvertently advance terrorist objectives. Journalists should be careful of misinformation from terrorist propaganda, the government or other potential actors such as foreign governments.”

A comparison was made with the reporting of suicide, that runs the risk of detailing how suicide might be carried out; hence the report suggested ‘self-imposed ethical codes of practice and responsible reporting guidelines’ as important to mitigate the negative impacts of reporting on terrorism.

As the paper and webinar discussed, the Christchurch terror attack in New Zealand in March 2019 – when the attacker sought to live-stream his actions – showed the global nature of terrorism and its reporting, and how terrorists – whether ISIS or the extreme right-wing – seek to broadcast their violence, glorify their beliefs, and recruit. The decision of NZ premier Jacinda Ardern not to speak the name the Christchurch attacker; like the Manchester Evening News’ decision not to print the picture of the Manchester Arena suicide bomber of May 2017 alongside bomb dead, in case that put the attacker on a par with the victims; showed a developing understanding of how the media can be vulnerable to being exploited and manipulated by terrorists.

Among the subjects discussed during the webinar was social media and the wider agenda of ‘online harm’ – responsible reporting by the traditional media is all very well, but what if social media viewers simply turn to other platforms for salacious content? – and suicide, as a comparison, whereby (as the report put it) ‘the media industry has largely accepted self-imposed restrictions’.

Also speaking at the webinar were broadcaster turned LSE media studies academic Prof Charlie Beckett; and Ian Murray of the Society of Editors. You can download the document free at the RUSI website.

Picture by Mark Rowe; cordon in central London, March 2017, after the Westminster Bridge terror attack.


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