Big media should be first to show restraint.
Photo: AFP via BBC
When 19-year-old Adel K and his fellow jihadist entered the Eglise St. Etienne in a Normandy town on Tuesday carrying a home-made bomb and knives, they could be sure of one thing: whatever happened, they would be famous. The mere attempt to kill a priest as he finished celebrating Mass would get them world headlines since they were Muslims and would make a point of identifying themselves with ISIS. Success would make it doubly certain they would forfeit their own lives. They would be martyrs, with a new life online as in paradise.
Ali S, the 18-year-old who carried out the mass shooting in Munich a few days earlier, was not a jihadist, but he too sought a kind of fame. Born in Munich of Iranian immigrants, he seems to have failed to be accepted by his peers and became depressed and resentful. He found the “solution” to his identity problems in studying articles and books about mass shootings, and executed his own terrible act of revenge on the fifth anniversary of Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Norway. That would teach the school bullies a lesson! That would tell the world who he really was. “I am German!” he shouted from the rooftop during the attack.
These things have happened before, and they will happen again. Terrorism and mass shootings are contagious, and the more publicity they get, the quicker they spread – just the last couple of weeks have seen four attacks in Germany and three in France. Even the mass murder of mental health patients in a Japanese care facility by a former employee a few days ago has appeared as “related news” alongside online reports about the (entirely different) attacks in France and Germany.
Isn’t it time for some restraint, at least by the mainstream media, in the way they inform their global audience about these crimes?
If Adel and Ali had merely killed themselves in their bedrooms or deliberately crashed their cars, only a handful of people would know. Most countries have at least guidelines for what the media can say about a suicide, and New Zealand has hard law about it, although there is pressure from the media to change that. The reason is that suicide can be contagious, especially amongst adolescents.
The World Health Organisation itself has issued guidelines based on solid evidence that “media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviour.” WHO notes that this is related to “the amount and prominence of coverage, with repeated coverage and ‘high impact’ stories most strongly associated” with copycat attempts, especially when the deceased is a celebrity. “Most importantly,” says the WHO, description of the method used may lead to increases in the use of that method.
Although these points are relevant to terrorism and mass shootings there seem to be no set rules about reporting attacks like those perpetrated by Adel, Ali and others in recent weeks.
Both these young men achieved instant global notoriety. We know their names. We have seen Ali’s picture; online we can see video of him prowling a rooftop and even hear his voice shouting at those who tried to divert him from shooting the teenagers he had lured to a McDonald’s eatery. Adel and his as yet unidentified accomplice are said to have made a “recording” of their deed (how is not clear) but in any case the BBC reported today that ISIS has released a video about the pair.
In other words, any alienated Muslim or other troubled youth “out there” can find plenty of mainstream news to feed their obsessions – or plans -- right now without even going to informal online sources.
Under relentless pressure French media are beginning to realise this. The BBC also reports today:
A number of media outlets in France have announced that they will no longer publish images of people responsible for terror attacks.
In an editorial, Le Monde said it was doing so "to avoid giving posthumous credit" to those responsible, while adding that the intention of killing Father Hamel was to provoke "the blind vengeance that would place the entire country under the empire of hatred".
The move was repeated by the broadcasters BFMTV, France 24 and RFI.
A statement by the joint editorial team of France 24 and RFI said that they were "conscious of the echo that is being offered by our antennae... to terrorist movements who claim a state that does not exist".
The Catholic daily La Croix, which said it was following suit, said in its editorial on Wednesday that "responding to hatred with hatred would mean that evil has triumphed". The newspaper would now give only the first name of attackers, it said.
The Europe 1 radio station announced it would not name perpetrators of terror attacks.
As a small act of solidarity I have deleted the surnames of the two young men discussed in this story. In their cases it is too late, practically speaking, but as a statement of principle and intention I think it has some value. Perhaps I should have taken out the name of Ali’s Norwegian model as well, a man who is still alive and unrepentant.
But details about terror attacks are not the only area calling for restraint. School shootings and all mass murders – or attempts at such – should be toned down. Do we really need live footage, interviews with witnesses, pictures of weeping students hugging each other and impromptu shrines to the dead to adorn facts which are shocking enough in themselves? All of these things add to the impact, not to say glamour, of what the murderer has “achieved”.
Perhaps this is asking the impossible in a digitalised global journalism: if the leading news sites do not provide such details the social networkers will. Yet if those at the top of the pyramid refuse to become loudspeakers for Facebook and WhatsApp networkers or citizen journalists, won’t the latter shrivel for lack of oxygen? Isn’t this what big media already do to a large extent to pro-life and pro-family voices?
Canadian media ethicist Stephen J A Ward argues that, in a global, media-linked world where stories cross borders and can inspire positive change – but also incite massive violence – we need globally-minded journalism, based on global values. Robbing killers of their fame would be such a value, protecting both disturbed youths and the public from copycat crimes, at least to some extent.
Perhaps the stand being taken by some French media with regard to terrorism reporting will develop into something global. It seems a good place to start.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.