Journalism and the terror trap | 65 years DW | 65 years DW | DW | 17.05.2018
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65 years DW

Journalism and the terror trap

September 11, 2001 marks a decisive change in journalism. 17 years later, numerous terror attacks have occurred, forcing people in the media to continue to evaluate the relationship between terrorism and journalism.

By Christian F. Trippe, Head Security and Social Issues Desk: In the summer of 2002, the movie "September" went into production. German director Max Färberböck wanted to make a film that dealt with the terror attacks on 9/11. One of the film locations was the DW studios on Voltastrasse in Berlin, as September 11 was a major media event. The images of the collapsing towers were a huge news event and had a lasting impact. This is something that the terrorists involved in the attack must have taken into consideration. With that in mind, the reporting aspect of the attacks had to be featured in the movie.

The discussion about the connection between terrorism and journalism has repeatedly been referred to as a "symbiotic relationship" with critics lamenting an allegedly unhealthy and even dangerous interplay between the two. After all, who would doubt that reports about acts of extreme violence with political motivations make for high ratings?

Journalists are facing tough questions: do they want to provide terrorists with the media platforms they crave and without which they perhaps wouldn't commit some acts of terror? Does a sensationalist and emotionally driven way of reporting make the media silent accomplices? Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri openly said in 2004 that for him half the battle of jihad took place in the media.

To report or not to report?

Acts of terror are designed to achieve the highest possible level of insecurity and fear. But this can only happen if the media decide to report accordingly. This creates an ethical dilemma. Does it mean that journalists are feeding into the hands of such violent criminals when they report on these events? Some commentators have even suggested that the only reply could be to simply stop reporting on terrorism.

A reasoning given is how local newspapers for instance no longer report about suicides in order to prevent suicidal people from getting any ideas. However, this kind of advice doesn't really help to solve anything. Even if all of the people working in traditional media agreed to enter such a vow of silence about acts of terror, all it would take would be a tweet or a few posts in social media and the whole exercise would backfire. People would accuse the media of self-censorship. The reputation and credibility of established news organization brands would be forever tarnished.

Acts of terror have become too big to ignore and one cannot not report on these events. Before 9/11, the rationale of many terrorists was to discount the number of victims as their main metric and to focus on spreading fear instead. However, this equation has changed since. Terrorism has turned into a matter of mass murder. The attacks on the Brussels airport, the slaughter at the Bataclan music venue in Paris, the homicidal van attack on the sea promenade in Nice show that assailants now try to blindly score the highest number of victims instead. This forces those who have to report on such events to confront some serious challenges.

When the attacks on September 11 happened, newsrooms across the world were rather unprepared to address a calamity of that magnitude. Reporting on these terror attacks was a challenge, which hardly anyone managed to rise to. There were no live broadcasts of any noteworthy length and no real-time analyses looking at the terrorists, their backgrounds and their motivations. In that regard, 9/11 was a wake-up call for German journalism, leading to a series of modernizing initiatives. Today, DW is one of the few German news organizations which are able to report from breaking news events. And like many other media companies, DW is constantly reevaluating its standards in reporting on terrorism.

Deutsche Welle Dr. Christian F. Trippe TV Berlin (DW/B. Geilert)

Christian F. Trippe

Is terrorism a form of warfare? Perhaps not in the original sense of the term. However, terrorism shakes those who are immediately affected by it in the same ways that wars would. Berlin-based political scientist Herfried Münkler says that these are "new wars" and describes contemporary acts of terror as a "scattered mix involving various agents of violence." In this context, he adds, "religiously motivated acts of terror amount to a strategy of violence, which will have to be regarded as a form of warfare in the 21st century."

Better safe than sorry

Journalism will have to find ways to react to this. Journalists will have to reflect on ethical standards when reporting on terrorism and work on honing and refining their skills accordingly. This will have to include a more careful way of dealing with images emerging from these events, greater diligence when handling documents such as alleged confession letters, paying assiduous attention when it comes to analyses and evaluations - even at the risk of being deemed too hesitant - as well as fastidious fact checking throughout. It is certainly better to be safe than sorry with premature speculations on motivations behind acts of mass violence which may not always turn out to be related to terrorism. The killing spree that took place in Munich in July 2016 is an infamous example of how social media and traditional news outlets can interact in a way that they derail into misjudgment and error.

A study conducted at Georgia State University examining violent acts between 2011 and 2015 found that news reporting on acts of violence carried out by alleged Islamists overtook the coverage of similar events involving perpetrators of any different religious or ideological background fivefold. Such results should help sensitize journalists to this new reality. Is our coverage appropriate and proportionate not only when it comes to the amount of reporting but also with regard to the choices of words we use and the emphases we set?

Terrorism happens out of nowhere. But there is always a back story which needs to be dealt with. Terrorists pursue certain goals that need to be addressed. One of those goals is to get us journalists to report on their violent acts. By addressing this dilemma as part of our reporting, we can alleviate its negative side effects.

Christoph Jumpelt, Deutsche Welle, Head of Corporate Communications and Spokesperson

Christoph Jumpelt

Head of Corporate Communications and Spokesperson

T. +49.228.429-2041