Terrorism and the media: a handbook for journalists

It is difficult to overstate the fraught complexity of the relationship between terrorism and the media.


Perhaps no other issue has been characterised by such prolific wall-towall coverage in recent years, and perhaps no other has so challenged media professionals to maintain journalistic ethics and balance in their reporting.


Many of the violent attacks we see playing out today are at least partly conceived with media coverage in mind, targeting not just the actual victims but millions of shocked and shaken spectators across the globe.


Meanwhile, the tremendous pressures being exerted on media to attract audiences – in the face of ongoing waves of technological and financial transformations – can create a powerful temptation to focus on the violent and the sensational, and to be the first to report breaking information and rumours, even before accuracy can be assured.

This is the context for UNESCO commissioning this handbook: to explore some of the ethical dilemmas present in terrorism coverage, and start a conversation with media professionals as to how to respond appropriately and proportionately.


Of course, this is by no means a call for less information. Journalism has an obligation to provide verifiable information in the public interest, and audiences have a fundamental right to access accurate and balanced information, especially when it may affect their own safety or freedom.


Yet is this achieved by unrelenting coverage, constant breaking alerts and the same news repeated again and again, for events inherently designed to incite fear?


In a major 2017 survey of 20,000 young people across the globe, 83% said that terrorism made them fearful for the future – more than any other factor, including climate change, war, and income inequality.1 1 “Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey”, Varkey Foundation, 2017 To what extent is coverage playing into the interests of fearmongers?

And to what extent does coverage skew towards an existing narrative or prevalent idea of “who is a terrorist”? Surely the words used, examples cited and images displayed should inform and not sensationalise.


Some research suggests that, controlling for other factors, an attack perpetrated by Muslims is covered significantly more than other terrorist attacks.2 And much attention has been paid to attacks in Western countries, despite 96% of the victims of terrorism in 2016 being in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia.3 These kinds of representations can fan stereotypes and division, and fuel backlash and counter-violence. The risks are real – hate attacks against wider groups perceived as being linked to a violent attack have been shown to jump dramatically in many cases – sometimes for years afterwards.4 As the United Nations agency responsible for “building peace in the minds of men and women”, this issue strikes particularly close to our hearts at UNESCO. We are actively engaged in preventing all forms of violent extremism, through the education and empowerment of young people, and safeguarding and celebrating cultural diversity.


Through our mandate to promote freedom of expression and access to information in the media and on the Internet, we are working closely with media organizations to provide training and capacity-building – based upon the advice contained in this handbook – to raise awareness of these challenges and better support journalists reporting in this area.


We are contributing our expertise and experience to the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, and working closely with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), national governments, and other key entities to ensure the global response to violent extremism is coordinated, coherent and effective.

The scourge of terrorism, whoever commits or sponsors it, must be thwarted wherever it strikes, its victims supported and honoured, and 2 Kearns, E.M., Betus, A. & Lemieux, A. “Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?”, Justice Quarterly, 2018. 9, 2018. 3 Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland, 2016 4 Comité contre l’islamophobie en France (CCIF), 2015 ; E Hanes, “Hate Crime in the Wake of Terror Attacks: Evidence from 7/7 and 9/11”, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol 30, Issue 3, 2014.; Brian H Levin, “Responses to the Increase in Religious Hate Crimes”, United States Senate: Committee on the Judiciary, May 2 2017. its perpetrators brought to justice. Media can cover these dimensions, and at the same time highlight genuine dialogue and discussion as alternatives to violence and bloodshed.


We may not be able to prevent terrorism every time, but what we do have control over is our reactions. To not allow it to provoke us into living our lives in fear, nurturing our own prejudices and hatred or shutting down legitimate voices. In other words, to avoid letting terror dismantle all of the progress we have made in the advancement of democracy, freedom of expression and human rights around the world.


Otherwise, we risk playing right into the hands of those engaged in terror, as well as others who instrumentalise attacks to justify suspicion, polarisation and violations of rights.


Source: UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization