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Media Freedom And Responsibility In Terrorism Coverage

Terrorist Salah Abdeslam on front page of French newspapers after November 2015 Paris attacks
Terrorist Salah Abdeslam on front page of French newspapers after November 2015 Paris attacks
Georg Mascolo and Peter Neumann

MUNICH — Shortly after the 1985 hijacking of a TWA plane by a splinter group of the Shiite Hezbollah militia, Britain's then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, blasted the media for its handling of the affair and called for a new code of conduct. If the press would simply stop covering terrorist attacks, she argued before a gathering of the American Bar Association, it would deprive the attackers of "the oxygen of publicity."

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with this thesis long before he became prime minister, saying that without publicity, terrorism would be like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest without being seen or heard.

Decades later, the debate is again playing out, sparked most recently by a decision by French media to no longer mention terrorists by name or publish pictures of them. Still, the question remains: How much and what kind of reporting is appropriate? Where do we draw the line between providing correct and necessary information to the public and a reporting style that plays right into the hands of terrorists?

The primary goal of terrorism is not to kill but to terrorize. It is a special form of provocation. An attack that is not disseminated is worthless. For that reason, terrorists have long depended on the media, even as far back as the early 19th century, when anarchists took advantage of the beginnings of mass newspaper production.

Fifteen years ago, al-Qaeda struck the biggest media coup of all when it took down the Twin Towers in New York City. Osama bin Laden was credited with the still valid mantra among Islamists that a radio station is more important than a nuclear bomb.

Now, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which is nothing more than a former subgroup of al-Qaeda, is continuing with the jihad in a most brutal way. ISIS has revolutionized propaganda use like no other terrorist organization before. It publishes an unbelievable number of messages, videos and statements, releasing 30 to 40 "propaganda units" per day, according to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's intelligence service. And these aren't the "old man videos" of Bin Laden's time, as stated by the BND, but incredibly professional material.

ISIS measures its success not just by the number of people who are killed, but also by the length of television news segments, or the font size in newspaper headlines.

But if we all followed Thatcher's suggestion and stopped reporting on terrorism, then the politicians and society as a whole would need to remain silent as well — an impossible goal, especially in a viral world where every bit of news spreads like wildfire. Silence simply isn't a solution to the problem at hand.

But it is necessary to think about how reporting on terrorism could and should be shaped. Some U.S. networks, like CNN and Fox, broadcast terrorist material of decapitations and burnings. Fox's own media expert Howard Kurtz sees a problem with this approach. "I worry that we are aiding the dissemination of fear that ISIS so desperately wants to spread," he said last year. But Megyn Kelly, one of the network's star presenters, disagrees. "It's as if we're in World War II and there was a chance to see inside the concentration camp and inside the gas chamber as the horror was happening," she said.

There are differences, of course, between the Nazis and ISIS. Whereas the former tried to hide their crimes, the latter tweets theirs for all the world to see. They even produce videos of their actions these days.

This kind of material is designed to be broadcast as widely as possible and should, therefore, be taken for what it is, namely propaganda. Which is why the media should exercise extreme caution — not just with pictures of the acts themselves, but also when it comes to flag waving ISIS supporters or confession videos of terrorists. They should not be used without their appropriate context and even then, only sparingly.

We also need to be careful with the words we use to describe these terrorist acts and the people who commit them. One example is the "lone wolf" label used for perpetrators who do not appear to have a prior connection to ISIS. There is an argument to be made that the term is overly celebratory, that it turns these killers into heroes.

In cases such as these, the French stance against publishing names and pictures of terrorists is the right one. ISIS tries, on the one hand, to use journalists. But it also fears them. ISIS rarely allows reporters to enter their so-called caliphate. Instead, they kidnap journalists and kill them. In late 2014, the group issued rules regarding the suppression of news in its territory. The first and most important rule is that only journalists who swear allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate are allowed to enter. In other words, ISIS recognizes independent reporting for what it is, a threat.

Journalists have to fight harder to expose the true face of ISIS and counter its attempts to sabotage independent reporting. They need to disseminate the facts to dispel the myths ISIS spreads — facts such as mass desertions and rampant corruption within the caliphate; or that ISIS, as reported by the Washington Post, sends out certain members to recover fallen soldiers, wash their bodies, and rearrange their facial features to resemble a smile. The idea, apparently, is to give the impression that the victims entered paradise with a smile, rather than died in horrible agony.

After the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France's media watchdog imposed 15 cautions and 21 warnings regarding coverage of the events. Particularly problematic were images of a Muslim policemen who was executed outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly magazine that was targeted in the attack. The media also erred by reporting — while a separate attack was still unfolding — that hostages were hiding in a walk-in cooler in a Jewish supermarket. In that case, the media put the lives of the hostages directly at risk.

The people involved later sued the offending media outlets. Since then, French press has shown more restraint. Germany does not have a media watchdog, for good and historical reasons. But it has a duty to exercise self-control and to heed suggestions by the German Press Council.

For now, there are no express rules in Germany for covering terror attacks. But there is increasing pressure that norms be established. In the meantime, reporters would do well to recall this sentence from the guidelines on covering violent attacks: "The press will not be made to be the tool of criminals."

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