Terrorism and the Media : A Handbook for Journalists

It should be clear to everyone why a publication such as this, on the coverage of terrorism and violent extremism in the media, is urgently needed. Around the world we see various actors staging violence against civilians to foster fear and suspicion of others.

We see populations in many countries convinced that terrorism represents the most significant threat to their daily lives. We see political movements that take advantage of tragedy and pit citizens against each other in order to gain greater support. It is critical to reflect on how the media may be inadvertently contributing to this tense climate, and what steps should be taken to address this. It is important to remember that terrorism is not a new phenomenon.

Many countries have suffered for decades from groups, both internal and external and including both State and non-State actors, wielding violence against civilians as political strategy. In many cases, the local population emerged stronger and more resilient, proving that brutality is no match in the long term for the progress of unity and shared values.

In this context, the media are critical in providing verifiable information and informed opinion. During the tense environment of a crisis, with populations on edge and tempers flared, this becomes all the more important. The relationship between terrorism and media is complex and fraught. At its worst, it is a perverse symbiotic relationship – terrorist groups devising spectacles of violence to continue drawing the world’s attention, and the media incentivised to provide wall-to-wall coverage due to huge audience interest. Of course, this is not to minimise the real human suffering that terrorism causes.

 Far too many lives have been cut short by it. These acts must always be deplored, and those accountable brought to justice. It is important to remember that the goal of these violent actors is not to bring terror for terror’s sake. They do not wish to create fear in the minds of men and women simply because of their interests, hatred or ideology. Their real objective is to cleave society down the centre, turning people against each other by provoking repression, discrimination and discord.

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They aim to simultaneously prove themselves correct in their predictions of widespread persecution and to attract new followers to their violent cause. They seek to create a mood of defeatism in the face of attacks and polarised reactions. The real risk of terrorism is that fear and suspicion will drive a new wave of nationalism and populism, and that the freedoms we have all worked so hard to achieve will be sacrificed on the altar of retribution. These are not attacks on one nation or people, but attacks on all of us as global citizens.

We should be especially critical of any response that plays wilfully into the hands of violent actors, and which generates its own victims who become martyrs for further terrorist recruitment. In these difficult times, with fragmented audiences and many media organizations undergoing severe financial challenges, journalists must resist the urge to sensationalise matters in the interest of attracting eyeballs, ears or clicks.

They must keep a global perspective, and pay attention to the words they use, the examples they cite, and the images they display. They must avoid speculation and finger-pointing in the immediate confusion following an attack when nothing is known, yet the demand for information is perhaps the strongest of all. They must consider carefully the fact that there is something inherent in terrorism as a violent act that provokes a fear in many that is far disproportionate to the actual level of risk. They must do all of this while ensuring they not put themselves or their staff in harm’s way in the pursuit of a story. And most of all, they must avoid fostering division and hatred and radicalisation at both margins of society. During times of crisis, from natural disasters and famine to conflict and, in this case, terrorism, UNESCO works actively through its specialised sectors to monitor the situation, evaluate needs and respond in an appropriate and efficient manner.

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We are contributing our experience and expertise to the implementation of the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, through education, youth participation and empowerment, promoting freedom of expression, and safeguarding and celebrating cultural diversity all over the world. We are working with our partners to fight the illicit trafficking of cultural objects that can provide a source of financing for extremist groups, and continuing to promote our core values of tolerance, understanding and peace at a time when they are being challenged.

 It is hoped that the contribution of this guidebook, developed with the inputs of journalists, editors and media producers, will act as a critical resource for those covering terrorist events. Not every question posed has a clear and incontestable answer, but will at least encourage self-reflection on the part of media professionals as to how they can avoid contributing to stigmatisation and division. It may also provide a basis for the creation and revision of codes of practice to ensure the above values are enshrined in the daily operations of media organizations.

This guidebook is also just one step in a concerted UNESCO response to the issue of how the media covers terrorism and violent extremism. The advice and suggestions contained within will be developed into training materials to help journalists around the world become more aware of the various dimensions of these issues.

Terrorism and violent extremism are likely problems that will be with us for some time. Yet if we can work together to reduce the explosive rhetoric, overblown coverage and stigmatisation of minority groups, perhaps some of the incentive to commit violence against civilians will disappear along with it.

Forward written by Frank La Rue, the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information

The complete book can be downloaded at UNESCO Documents

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