Media and playing into the hands of terror

When terrorist acts happen it poses very difficult decisions for media, and these decisions have to be made very quickly, while other media are busy with their headlines.

It is important that media report big and important news, but they have to be careful about not giving terrorists too much of what they are primarily wanting, publicity.

Something media should be most wary of is feeding speculation, rumours and deliberate conspiracies before facts are known.

Laura Walters at Newsroom: International media drops the ball on Sri Lanka terror coverage

Analysis: Unsubstantiated claims of retaliation led some of the biggest news sites in the world. Laura Walters looks at the responsibility of media in covering an increasingly volatile tit-for-tat war of terror.

On Tuesday evening, New Zealanders’ news feeds were filled with a flood of media reports claiming the Sri Lankan bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were revenge for the Christchurch mosque attacks.

The reports added validitity and oxygen to this growing, somewhat biblical, idea of a tit-for-tat terror war.

In response to these reports, Emma Beals, a Kiwi independent journalist who specialises in coverage of the Middle East, ISIS and terrorsim tweeted, “This is a terrifying statement”.

Providing publicity for the terrorists and agents of the terrorists who want to drive hate and division and who are trying to escalate terror and terror wars is a difficult but essential consideration for responsible media, especially when there is so much irresponsible media around and available online now.

This reporting again raises media’s role and burden of responsibility when reporting on terror events – something that’s been a topic of much discussionin New Zealand since the Christchurch attacks. It’s an area where domestic media is still finding its feet, but news organisations have been proactive in creating internal policies, and working together to come up with reporting guidelines ahead of the shooter’s trial.

Ellis said New Zealand media did a good job at balancing the claim with the context in its coverage of the retaliation angle. With a fast-moving situation, or evolving news story, like a terror attack, it was important not to over-egg these types of claims.

“I think it behoves the media to act with a degree of greater responsibility than that,” he said.

Going forward, media outlets needed to apply constant editorial judgment when covering terror attacks, and related developments.

That’s a big editorial responsibility, but an essential requirement for media. It is most important for large media (the much maligned but essential mainstream media’ provides most of the coverage of large news events) to do this as well as possible, but at the other end of the media scale sole operator sites like this also have to consider the implications of not only what is posted, but also what is commented.

There are people who are genuinely concerned about escalations of terror and tit for tat terror and want to talk about it, but it can be challenging differentiating this from those who are deliberately trying to inflame already volatile situations, and are in effect acting as agents of terrorists.

Playing into the hands of terror

Along with the issues of prominently reporting unverified claims, there’s the knock-on effect of sending signals of a dangerous tit-for-tat terror war.

“It plants in the minds of others some sort of legitimacy in retribution and of course, there’s none,” Ellis said

“It changes the character of the events and turns them into a clash of civilisations.”

Since the minister’s comments surfaced, security and terrorism experts, including reporters like the New York Times’ reporter Rukmini Callimachi, have expressed scepticism at whether an attack of this magnitude and sophistication could have been organised in the weeks since the March 15 attack.

Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies teaching fellow John Battersby said he expected the planning and logistics for the Sri Lankan attacks were already in train prior to the Christchurch attack, however, the Christchurch attacks may have provided impetus to individuals or groups already determined on some terrorist act.

“As soon as the Sri Lankan news broke I wondered immediately if Christchurch featured somewhere in the calculation of the perpetrators,” he said.

On the other hand, it could all be a red-herring, “so I am allowing the possibility but will need confirmation with hard evidence”.

Battersby reiterated, like other commentators, he was sceptical about the whole attack plan and sequence being put together solely as a result of Christchurch, just as he was not convinced that Sri Lanka’s National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) fully planned and executed this without some serious outside assistance.

In times like these, it was important not to rush to judgment, and instead see what the intelligence actually said.

Likewise, when unpicking whether ISIS was behind the attack, as it unsurprisingly claimed.

This was the nuance and context missing from the initial reporting.

Some inadvertently play into the hands of terrorists (we are all at risk of this when providing coverage and forums for terrorist acts), while others, extreme activist opportunists, use terrorist acts to promote their own divisive agendas and seek publicity for themselves.

This provides a dilemma, for example on what UK extremist Katie Hopkins did in attacking Jacinda Ardern. Should her deliberately inflammatory nonsense be publicly confronted and condemned, or should it be ignored? Ignoring it is difficult of those who seeking to spread her crap have free shots with no challenge.

I considered the same issues when posting on the ongoing divisive ‘war of religion’ crap being spread at Whale Oil.

It was important media thought carefully about how to cover before playing into that plan for exposure of ideas and ambitions, and again, exercise the editorial judgment Ellis referred to.

Battersby said terrorism was now genuinely global, “where non-state actors are using the entire globe as a theatre to perpetrate their terror”.

“Extremist individuals or factions, on absolute fringes of our societies responding to each other’s provocations, by carrying out attacks on unsuspecting people at their most vulnerable times is a hideous and alarming feature of 21st Century globalised terrorism. Nations need to seriously get their heads together and confront this global risk, with a coordinated and integrated response.”

At a time like this, responsible, measured, and verified coverage is crucial.

That’s the job for large media organisations. Small ones like here need to also be responsible and measured, and try to repeat credible and verified coverage as much as possible, while still allowing relatively free discussions. That is a daily challenge.


Leave a comment


  1. Corky

     /  27th April 2019

    It’s a bit of a non issue for me. The terrorists have already won in my opinion. We are defenceless. The best we can hope for is stopping more terrorists acts than those that are perpetrated with success. The media can do what they like.

    Interesting note one of the Sri Lankan bombers was radicalised in Australia while attending university. That says something about the hot bed of radicalism that’s basically a stones throw away from us.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  27th April 2019

    Media have a responsibility to the truth, that’s all. Humanity needs all kinds of ideas and opinions to be expressed and evaluated. Those found to be harmful need to be managed but there should be close scrutiny of the justification and operation of this.

    • Kimbo

       /  27th April 2019

      Yeah, but who decides what is “harmful”, and how?

      Louisa Wall, for example, has already put herself forward as a sufficiently-objective and skilled arbiter, with requisite legislative experience to protect us from what she deems “harmful media”. And she’s done it despite, indeed because of a court ruling against her.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  27th April 2019

        Courts should decide with a high evidential threshold needed.

        • Kimbo

           /  27th April 2019

          Presumably dispensing justice not based on laws drafted, championed and passed by the likes of Louisa Wall.

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  27th April 2019

            A real constitutional protection from her ilk would be nice.


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