Examining the Dynamics and Factors that Contribute to the Impact of Media Reporting on Terrorism

RUSI Research Fellow Dr Jessica White Highlights the Many Influencing Challenges and Relationships.

Terrorists committing acts of communicative political violence can seek to use mass media infrastructure to further terrorism objectives and influence the public. This paper continues examination of the potential role of the media in terrorism, following the previous review of the theoretical evidence base. It explores the practical challenges and fluid dynamics of the modern media environment and their contribution to the potential negative impacts of media reporting on terrorism through both interviews with stakeholders in the media and police as well as language analysis.

From this review of the influencing dynamics and factors, the importance of non-prescriptive guidance emerged as a useful tool in the often very pressured context of reporting on terrorism. Also, the importance of a positive information sharing relationship between the security forces and the media is highlighted.

For full findings and recommendations see the report – the following is an abbreviated summary:

Key Findings

  • Both the public and the police contribute to the impact of media reporting on terrorism in the UK. Public appetite for information, especially after a terrorist attack, plays a role in both police communications and media reporting.
  • The police face multiple challenges and competing priorities, including balancing the communication of information with the protection of public trust and ongoing investigations and operations.
  • The way the media reports on terrorism can have unintended negative impact. The Editor’s Code of Practice provides the framework for journalistic ethics and responsibilities in the UK. However, the development of good practice takes time and experience. Therefore, further non-prescriptive guidance on the following issues could assist journalistic best practice.
  • In the UK, a positive and effective mode of engagement between the media and the police is key to mitigating the potential negative impacts of terrorism reporting. Recognition, communication, information and education should be the pillars on which a positive information relationship between the media and the police is built.

Key Recommendations for the Police

  • Police should establish an educational programme to offer regular information sessions for news outlets. They should also hold briefings with the media – proactively, to raise known issues (for example, disinformation and malicious media strategies) and anticipate operational considerations which may arise during major incidents/reactively, after incidents, or periodically to illustrate and discuss issues through case studies of recent events.
  • Police should join the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee as an avenue to provide proactive advisory information to the media on operational concerns in active incidents.
  • Police should provide timely and detailed information to help counteract mis- and disinformation during an active incident – also provide evidence of how media reporting can have negative or positive impacts to aid wider media discussions.
  • Police should establish internal guidance for communications. They should also cooperate with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) for enforcement of privacy notices and harassment policies.

Key Recommendations for the Media

  • Media should prioritise protection of the brand. In a world of ever-increasing competition over the consumption of media, news outlets should view adherence to the Editor’s Code of Practice and factual, objective reporting as a good business strategy.
  • Media should engage in cross-industry discussion of the impact of reporting on terrorism.
  • Media outlets should establish internal written guidance to ingrain understanding of issues like volume, sensitivity, content and impact before events occur – as well as conduct regular training/engagement sessions for reporters and editors covering terrorism.
  • Media should add a ‘Terrorism’ guidance page on the IPSO website highlighting terrorism-specific issues and impact, to provide easily accessible, non-prescriptive guidance which could be helpful to journalists as they are writing and editing stories on this complex topic.

Key Recommendation for the Police and the Media

  • Build relationships by being open to self-reflection and criticism. Recognise the challenges each face and share positive examples of reporting practice and police interaction. Work to build trust through increasing communication and flow of information.

Dr Jessica White is a Research Fellow in RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict group. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. She has recently published on a range of topics, including gender in security, right-wing extremism, and terrorism in the media. Before completing her PhD at the University of Birmingham, she spent six years as an intelligence and language analyst in the United States Navy.

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