In the scary times we live in, it can be all too easy to panic about the terrorist threats we all face. Some media organisations have, in the past, made terrible mistakes when it comes to identifying and reporting terrorist activity. Here, in seven quick do’s and don’ts, is a fail-safe guide that will help you avoid all the common pitfalls.

DO remember that terrorists come in all shapes and sizes

Long ago police forces across the world discovered the ethnic profiling was, well, a bit racist. In your report just because someone suspicious is white does not mean that they are not an evil bastard, you can, we promise, still refer to them as terrorists. In the real world, ignoring a terrorist because of their skin colour might kill you, don’t make the same mistake in print.

DON’T get animals and terrorists confused

A lone wolf is a four-legged canine who has been cut off from its pack. A terrorist is someone who has caused violence on a large scale. The former is furry and has fangs, the latter doesn’t. Don’t get them confused. (Particularly as this usually involves breaking at least one of the other rules in this list.

lone wolf
Photo: Dennis Matheson(Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY SA 2.0
This is actually what a lone wolf looks like.

DO take care when republishing graphic photos

Sometimes a picture tells a thousand words. At other times though, a picture is insensitive, gory, and liable to make someone cry or scare children shitless. We are not in favour of censorship, don’t get us wrong, but sometimes it’s worth remembering that the facts can speak for themselves, and your readers don’t need to see someone’s last moments splashed across your front pages. Don’t neuter a story, but show some damn compassion, eh?

We are not in favour of censorship, don’t get us wrong, but sometimes it’s worth remembering that the facts can speak for themselves. And that your readers don’t need to see someone’s last moments splashed across your front pages.

DON’T forget that mental illness doesn’t make someone dangerous

This tends to happen when a media company forgets that terrorists can be white (see above). Don’t spend time searching for an understandable motive that doesn’t exist, and absolutely don’t crowbar a diagnosis on some dead terrorist because it helps excuse the fact that they’ve just shot up a school or a nightclub. It’s offensive.

DO remember that a terrorist attack involves real people who can use the internet (on their phones!)

So when you tweet uncorroborated rumours about a shooter inside of a building, frankly, you’re terrifying already scared people for no real reason. Trust us, this is not a pleasant thing to happen – it’s always worth making bloody sure that you know you’re right.

DON’T harass victims or witnesses

When one survives a shocking terrorist event, or worse, sees friends or family killed or seriously injured, the last thing they need is a camera or microphone in their face. The ‘death knock’ is an important and sensitive journalistic tool, yes, but if someone doesn’t want to speak to you, they don’t want to speak to you, so you should leave them the hell alone. PTSD is a thing, don’t be the reporter who makes it worse.

and finally

DO give international crises the coverage they deserve

Yes, we’ve all read the media theory. We know that there’s less interest in tragedies or disasters that happen far from home and to people who aren’t like you. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s worth being the brave newspaper or broadcaster who turns the spotlight on someone else’s nightmares. Sometimes, Galtung and Ruge can just do one; we ought to hear about bombings in Baghdad or Amman. Maybe then your audience might avoid jumping to easy conclusions.


Teaser photo: Canadian Pacific (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

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    Sam Volpe

    Former Editor

    Samuele Volpe is a real person of age and location undisclosed. For all enquiries please hire a private detective. Or follow him on Twitter @samuelevolpe

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