Journalism dos and don’ts in terror situations

Photo credit: Kalyeena Makortoff

As a consequence of the recent terror attacks that shocked Europe and Asia, terrorism was one of the major topics the International Journalism Festival focused on. On 9 April, 2016 one panel formed by academics, journalists and policy-makers discussed how newsrooms and journalists should address terrorism-related stories and prepare contingency plans in advance.

Various aspects and legalities involved in covering terror stories were discussed by  Ibrahim Helal, Director of Editorial Development at Al Jazeera; Salam Khoder, General Manager at Flair Media Consultancy; Lamija Aleckovic, former Head of News at HRT and Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University.

The talk focused on how news networks currently cover terror attacks, how journalists must be prepared for breaking news situations and the editorial policy planning that should be prepared by every organisation for handling emergency situations: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. News organisations must know where they stand on how to cover terror attacks and must think through and find their own position and put that into action,” said Richard Sambrook while explaining the need for newsrooms to define the rules of news coverage during terror attacks.

He further added: “By attempting to be the first [ones] to report, and being under constant pressure from social media and rival media companies, journalists often report on terrorist attacks without basic ethical standards and rules in mind.”

Sambrook also emphasised the need for clear editorial policies that need to be understood by the staff – policies which should also include rules on how to cope in case of direct terror attacks. He spoke about how, during his tenure at BBC World News, the organisation was faced with a terror attack and had to evacuate the entire staff before a car bomb went off. But, since the BBC had an alternative back-up of all its data, they could function seamlessly without blacking out content dissemination.

As part of the panel, Sambrook offered some guidelines journalists should follow when covering terror attacks, including making sure to explain what is happening during such coverage rather than attempting to explain why an event is happening. A particularly controversial issue has developed in regards to using graphic content, to which he suggested allowing the editorial team to make a call on what ought to be shown, and what should be avoided.

Other guidelines Sambrook presented at the panel include:

i. Avoid publishing possibly libellous information, and always verify before publishing;

ii. Conduct ample research and studies in order for the audience to be able to understand what the organisation’s position is in case of terror attacks;

iii. Media organisations should always have a contingency plan in case of emergencies – like back-ups – to ensure uninterrupted news coverage;

iv. In order to protect journalists, media organisations should have suitable communication networks, and channels to keep in touch with key figures to enable negotiations and ensure the reporter’s safety;

Salam Khoder spoke about how journalists need to focus on the story at hand and focus on facts rather than turning into commentators: “Journalists aren’t meant to fight terrorism, but report what is happening without biases and minus self-censorship,” Khoder said.

“Journalists’ primary duty in case of breaking news is to do their job and just report what is happening without analysing the situation. But mistakes are constantly repeated by the media because of the pressure of competition and the desire to be the first,” Salam further added.

Meanwhile, Lamija Aleckovic compared news coverage during terror attacks to reality shows such as Big Brother and explained how television channels turn any terror attack into a sensationalised melee of “noise over facts”: she laid partial blame on social networks and the way they are used by media professionals.

Aleckovic also touched on the differences between how international broadcasters cover news and how national news agencies pick up the standards and ethics set up by these organisations while covering major terror attacks: “In national television, there is a thin line between covering terror and making it sensational. Organisations must have editorial policies in place for crisis situations and everyone can prepare a way for breaking news by creating packages/graphics in advance and also keeping a checklist of dos and donts handy.”

“How can television handle live reporting and broadcasting graphic content not suitable for viewers in breaking news situations?” Sanam Khoder asked the panel to then receive a reply from Ibrahim Helal, who said: “The BBC has a 15-second delay to review graphic content before broadcasting, which provides the journalists time to review content before publishing it.”

Sometimes, Helal argued, the media can be guilty of helping the attackers achieve their goal of terrorising the public with their coverage: “We do it for commercial and competition reasons. The most difficult decision is to understand when to stop. The problem is that media organisations are always driven by their commercial interests and they stop unethical reporting on terror attacks only ‘once the competitors have stopped’ which often takes a long time during which the audience has already picked up the biased, unethical or sometimes wrong reporting.”

One thing all panellists could agree on was their opinion on Twitter-based journalism: they regretted the platform’s lack of editorial policy and proceeded to caution journalists against relying on Twitter or any other social network for breaking news situation without proper verification: “If there is a gap in your reportage or news coverage – said Salam Khoder – state it publicly and respect audiences and their judgement.”