Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Do mass media help terrorists?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor is an israeli professor (he's the founder and director of the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa) and he wrote a paper called "Media Coverage of Acts of Terrorism: Troubling Episodes and Suggested Guidelines"; the paper was published in vol 30-3 (2005) of Canadian Journal of Communication.

In the paper you can read a long list of unprofessional and unethical mistakes made by journalists during coverage of acts of terrorism.
Journalists should never forget that when they report some news, they do not give information only to the public, they do give information to the public and to the terrorists.
Sometimes it seems that the rule of the scoop is more important than the rule of saving human lives. And the consequence can be a matter of life or death.

At the end of the paper, the author wrote some guidelines for journalists:

- The media need to be accountable for the consequences of their coverage
- The media should not jeopardize human life
- The media are advised to co-operate with the government when human lives are at stake in order to bring a peaceful end to the terrorist episode. This is not to suggest that the police or other security organizations should have a veto power over reporting. What is suggested is co-operation and mutual respect and understanding between the government agencies and the media
- The media should not glorify acts of terror as they glorified the SLA during the Hearst kidnapping
- The media should refrain from sensational and panicky headlines, from inflammatory catchwords, and from needless repletion of photos from bloody scenes
- Terrorism should be explicitly condemned for its brutality and violent, indiscriminate nature, as the Israeli media on the whole condemn terror
- The media must not pay or be paid for covering terrorist incidents
- The media are advised not to take upon themselves to mediate between the terrorists and the government. Special qualifications are required before one assumes such a responsibility upon oneself. Journalists are there to cover the event, not to become part of it
- The media are expected to refrain from making dangerous speculations about the terrorists' plans, government response, hostages' messages, and other matters. Speculations might hinder crisis management
- Media professionals should have background information about the terrorists they are required to cover. They should do research prior to their coverage. We should learn from the Hanafi incident, which luckily did not end with the murder of a hostage just because one reporter was ill-informed and did not do his homework as he should have
- The media should not broadcast live terrorist incidents that include hostage taking. This is in order not to jeopardize human life and not to impede a government's attempts to rescue the hijacked. This is not to say that the media should not cover such incidents. Rather, there should be a delay of a few minutes during which an experienced editor inspects the coverage and authorizes what should be on air and what should not, as was the case when hostages were released from the Iranian embassy in London in 1980
- The media are advised not to interview terrorists while the terrorist incident is still in motion. Lines of communications between the authorities and the terrorists should be left open. The media should not impede the negotiations process, as they did in the Hanafi takeover in Washington
- The media should not co-operate with terrorists who stage events. The BBC's decision not to broadcast the spectacle in Carrickmore was right
- The media are required to show sensitivity to the victims and to their loved ones. This critical guideline should be observed during terrorist incidents and, no less importantly, also after their conclusion
- The media are expected not to report details that might harm victims' families
- The area in which the terrorist incident takes place should not be open for anybody who testifies that he or she is a journalist. Only senior and experienced reporters should be allowed in. Junior and inexperienced reporters should undergo a learning process during which they fathom the complexities involved. Adequate training is a necessary precondition

Media Coverage of Acts of Terrorism: Troubling Episodes and Suggested Guidelines 2005
(20 pages + 8 pages of notes and references)

Troubling episodes
Endangering life
Hindering governmenti activities
Glorifying terrorists
Sensational coverage
Irresponsible terminology
Co-operation with terrorists and payment for interviews
Irresponsible mediation
Dangerous speculations
Lack of homework and live interviews during crisis
Live coverage
Staging events


Chiara said...


I don't have time enough to read the entire paper (at least, not today!) but I do think that media have a huge responsibility.

I agree with the author: Media professionals should have background information about the terrorists they are required to cover .
Usually media professionals do not have the above mentioned background and they seem more interested in reporting improper details or in advertising the last "Osama's video".

Neither they are aware about the potential consequences of their coverage, nor they pay attention to victim's families.

Fabrizio said...

it's worth reading the whole paper

i think that universities of journalism should spend long time teaching ethics and consequences of journalism

Gio said...

Freedom of press,

as long as medias don't lie or hide facts intentionally to give a distorted view of the facts.

Controlling the media is another form of terrorism.

What would the next step be? Maybe hiding information about the situation of the palestinians? Just wondering !

No mr Professor Cohen keep your hands off our medias. this is my personal "advise" to you; if you like.

Fabrizio said...

i think that in his paper, freedom of press is not the point.
The point is "during extraordinary events, is it wise releasing information that help terrorists?"

hint: we can talk about freedom of press because we are free and safe at home. If one of your family was hostage of terrorists, would you think it's wise when a journalist releases information that help the hostage-taker?

If a journalist wants to blame the government, why doens't he/she wait for the end of the extraordinary event? maybe because afterwards they wouldn't sell many copies, would they?

Gio said...

haha yeah sure that's how they start it

simone said...

A couple of months ago, the famous journalist Piero Ottone wrote that we should stop talking about terrorists, because what they want is exactly to get the media attention and, through this, scare people.
What do you think?

Read this....


Fabrizio said...

I read your post but you know that in democracy being silent about terrorism is impossible: everyday there's a "war" about audience.
Let's say you are the editor of an important newspaper (or manager of a tv news), what would you do? You wouldn't cover terrorism, would you?

1) You don't cover terrorism
2) Other newspapers do cover terrorism
3) They make money, you don't
4) The owner tells you "cover it, otherwise you'll be fired!"

almagor said...

Thank you, Fabrizio, for publicizing my paper. As you gathered, I am a friend of the media, and an advocate of freedom of expression. However, I do believe in ethics, responsibility, and boundaries, otherwise the result might be anarchy.

For further deliberation, see my books: Speech, Media and Ethics
(2005), and the Scope of Tolerance (2006).

Best wishes

Raphael Cohen-Almagor

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