Viewpoints on reporting terrorism as siege ends

Protecting life and not falling into the terrorist media agenda are two things to think about when reporting terrorism, says radioinfo’s Steve Ahern.

Over the past five years, Ahern’s company AMT Pty Ltd has developed guidelines for media organisations and governments in various countries to help understand and report terrorism.

With the siege over and the identity of the deceased gunman now revealed, where will coverage go in coming days and will it prompt stations to revise their thinking on terrorism coverage?  

The excerpts below are unclassified sections from various documents produced by AMT, which may be useful for news and program teams when thinking through how to cover incidents such as today’s events in Sydney.


Background on Terrorism


Definitions of terrorism vary, but the key characteristics of terrorism are:

  • An aim to create panic and terror in the population, often by intentionally targeting civilians with repeated violent action
  • To achieve recognition, legitimacy or publicity for views or grievances
  • An overarching philosophy and message
  • Part of a strategy to further an identifiable group’s aims
  • A greater motivation than personal interest, usually seeking to change the status quo through intimidation, coercion, or propaganda
  • Targets are chosen either randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets)

An indiscriminate act by a deranged individual is not technically terrorism, because there is no political ideology, no supporting group or strategy, no underlying grievance or wider social target, and no wider message to be delivered.


What is Terrorism?


It is difficult to define Terrorism, and its opposite Counter-Terrorism, because the definition depends on which side the conflict you take. Much academic literature and international debate has taken place to provide a definition. One useful definition, by the Australian Defence Force says terrorism is:

The use or threatened use of violence for political ends, or any use or threatened use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear.

As discussed by Angus Martyn in a report to the Australian Parliament, this is broadly consistent with most definitions in academic literature which generally require two elements:

  1. actual or threatened violence against civilians or persons not actively taking part in hostilities, and
  2. the implicit or explicit purpose of the act is to intimidate or compel a population, government or organisation into some course of action.

The modern concept of terrorism began with state sponsored actions following the French Revolution. The word terrorism was coined to describe the Reign of Terror instigated by Robespierre to keep the French populace under control through fear. Robespierre’s philosophy was to “subdue by terror the enemies of liberty.”

The philosophy behind this approach was to make people uneasy to the point where they would be afraid to oppose the regime.

In the past, some governments sought to protect the population from news about terrorism by restricting media coverage. The prospect of controlling the flow of information by controlling the media is no longer practical for democratic governments in the new media environment. In this new media environment two things are clear – news travels fast and news cannot be silenced.

So suppressing news of terrorism is no longer an option for governments or emergency services… Journalists and Media Relations Teams are now considered to be ‘first responders’ equally with police and emergency services in the field of emergency management. Governments must be prepared for rapid responses in any emergency situation…



Media and Terrorism

Media generally serves to amplify the happenings in society. Like any event covered by media, terrorism is amplified by media coverage.

Because of this amplification factor, media must be careful not to exaggerate the interests of the terrorists above the interests of the public and the state.

Are the media playing into the PR agenda of terrorists every time they mention the name of the terrorist group, such as ISIS, giving a free plug to the group and its agenda in every news bulletin?

The negative effects of uninformed coverage of a terrorism event can include:

  • giving legitimacy to terrorists
  • alienating segments of the population by aligning them with the terrorists
  • causing anxiety and panic

The positive effects of planned and informed coverage can include:

  • assisting with evacuations and emergency response
  • alerting the population to danger
  • undermining support for the terrorists
  • helping the population recover

Issues surrounding the media’s role in terrorism include legitimizing terrorists with media coverage, alienating groups within society and the notion of media self-restraint.


Bestowing Legitimacy on Terrorists

Examining the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, Brigitte Nacos highlights the positive role of media, but also points out that media coverage can give legitimacy to the terrorists.

“The media, especially local radio, television, and newspapers, were instrumental in helping crisis managers inform the public about emergency phone numbers, traffic restrictions, working schedules, and donations of goods and services.

“But these exemplary reporting patterns also have another side.

“Because major terrorist incidents are rich in dramatic, shocking, and tragic human interest aspects, the news media tends to over cover such events… it has been suggested that the news media, especially television, enhance terrorists’ third publicity goal: to gain respectability. By treating terrorists, their sponsors, and sympathizers as legitimate political actors, the newscasts appear to bestow a degree of respectability on these figures — especially when known terrorists appear with government authorities, ambassadors, and other official personalities.”



Effects on groups within the population

In the Australian Journal of Social Issues, Anne Aly examined the effects of terrorism reporting on Muslims in Australia. She found that uninformed media reporting and commentary stereotyped Muslims as being terrorists and alienated them from the wider society.

“The most commonly expressed perception of the popular Australian media by research participants is that it both implicitly and explicitly identifies Australian Muslims as ‘other’ and effectively inculcates fear of Muslims among the broader community by equating Muslims with the threat of terrorism. This perception is embedded in a broader framework in which Australian Muslims who see themselves as part of a global community of believers identify with a notion that Muslims around the globe are under attack, and that they are the victims of a larger conspiracy aimed at undermining Islamic identity and eradicating Islam as a world religion… The media is seen as a complicit and crucial actor in this conspiracy to destroy Islam.”



Coverage and Anxiety

It is well known that coverage of terrorist incidents can cause shock, panic, anxiety and post-traumatic stress in people who were not directly affected by the incident. This is one of the key aims of the terrorist.

In one study, Michelle Slone from the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University established strong links between reporting and anxiety.

“Results supported the anxiety-inducing effect of the experimental condition and indicated differential demographic and dispositional responses to the footage according to gender, religiousness, and level of dogmatism. These results support the powerful effect of the mass media and advocate further exploration of links between media broadcasting of political violence and psychological processes.”

Red Cross research has found that an emergency usually generates a number of possible effects on those involved: “These include shock, high arousal, narrowing of focus, disbelief and confusion about what has happened or is currently happening. An emergency can impact on a person’s ability to take in information, think about it and remember it.”

Michel Wieviorka and other terrorism scholars argue that there is a “symbiotic relationship” between terrorism and the media. The media need dramatic stories and the terrorists need coverage… voluntary self‐restraint and self‐regulation by the media are the best policy options for a democratic society in regard to the media’s response to terrorism.



Stages of Reporting 

Media coverage will change as the situation evolves. A plan to deal with each stage is important.

Stages of coverage include:

  • Before (if a credible threat is known in advance)
  • Immediate response
  • A continuing incident – unknown attacker
  • A continuing incident – confirmed terrorism
  • After the terrorist incident

Unless a known terrorist group claims immediate responsibility for an incident, it is likely you will not immediately know whether what has happened is a terrorist incident or not. At this stage it is important not to speculate.

Do not label an incident “terrorism” before you know for sure it is. Only talk about what you know for sure.

Follow the ‘Giuliani Principles’ to obtain the basic information. Ask about: what we know, what we don’t know, what is being done, what the public should do.

Try and cover the incident in a team. When you arrive on site, be aware of your own personal safety first before you begin your coverage, especially if you are one of the first on the scene. Identify yourself to police and response teams, and display your media credentials at all times.


Personal safety

Look around. Where are the safe places if there is an explosion? Can you work from behind some kind of protective barrier such as a wall or brick fence.

If it is an explosion, and there is likelihood it was a terrorist attack, there could be other attacks.

Are there any suspicious looking cars or trucks, perhaps heavily loaded and sagging on their suspension? If so stay away from them as they could contain other explosive devices.

Are there possible secondary targets? They will likely be where there are police, emergency services or large crowds. If possible, stay away from these areas until you know it is safe. Emergency Services Media Relations Teams should not hold media briefings at the same location as the command post or the treatment centre, both of these may be secondary targets.

If it is a siege situation are you safe from gun fire from locations around and above you?

If there is contamination, do not rely on the water or food supply, carry your own provisions.

Once you feel you are safe, gather information, survey the scene and report what you see. If authorities hold a media briefing be sure you are clear about what you can and cannot report. Respect the confidentiality and sensitivity of some information.

If you are intending to take pictures from the window of a building, make sure the police or military response teams know you are there. A glimpse of sun reflecting off a camera lens can look like the scope of a rifle in a pressured situation and you may find yourself to be a target if no one knows it is you in that window.

Analysis phase

Media will, and should, eventually move to an analysis phase. It is their job.

At this time it is wise to remember that the terrorists want publicity and legitimacy for their grievances or demands. While analysis will acknowledge the terrorists’ view (if known), the majority of the analysis should concentrate on condemnation of the act of violence and on correcting errors of interpretation if religion or some other justification is quoted to validate the attack.

Fear is inevitable after a terrorist attack. Panic is the result of fear. People do not think and respond well when they panic.

So reporting should at all times seek to minimize panic and clearly direct people in how to act in the situation.


After the incident

When the terrorist attack is over, the public will want to mourn, express their outrage, calm their sense of shock, and most of all, find out why it happened.

It is at this time that there will be a role for analysis and commentary, as well as expert opinion and perhaps even quotes from terrorist sources.

As well as coverage, the media has a role to play in supporting society, so be aware of the words used by reporters, analysts and commentators. Are they inflammatory? Do they help society understand and recover, or are they divisive?


Assisting the Recovery

The Red Cross advises that there are significant psychological challenges to communication and understanding after a traumatic event.

An emergency usually generates a number of possible effects on those involved. These include shock, high arousal, narrowing of focus, disbelief and confusion about what has happened or is currently happening.

It can impact on a person’s ability to take in information, think and remember, and affect them in the following ways:

  • Concentration – Limiting the amount of information that can be taken in and understood, the amount of time a person can focus and the complexity of details that can be absorbed.
  • Memory – disrupting the way a person can recall simple or complex knowledge, recent or past events, and retain emergency information.
  • Decision Making Ability – decreasing the ability to weigh up possibilities and risks, deal with complex ideas and plan or prioritise actions.

Media should actively seek out stories of recovery and regularly publish help information. Affected people should be encouraged to seek assistance from support services.

As well as the usual news and analytical coverage, media should also seek to empower people to help themselves by covering stories of courage and successful rebuilding, emphasizing a spirit of resilience, cooperation and national unity.


Australia has, fortunately, not been touched much by terrorism, but the rest of the world has much experience about it. Various journalism groups around the world, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Journalists without Frontiers, have guidelines on reporting terrorism and protecting yourself at the scene. They are easily found via search engines.

“I don’t normally talk much about this aspect of the work my company does, but in the current circumstances, I thought it might be useful to share some of this information with my colleagues in the Australian Radio Industry. I hope it is useful,” says Ahern.


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