How should journalism cover terrorism?

Photo: David H. Wells (Getty)

The use of fear as a weapon in political campaigning is long established, and often highly effective for candidates who deploy it. More often than not, spreading fear means the demonizing of a section of society: immigrants, unions, African Americans, bankers—and in this year’s US presidential election, American Muslims.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at the Columbia Graduate School for Journalism, has partnered with Democracy Fund Voice as part of a project examining the links between terrorism, political rhetoric and media coverage with particular reference to the impact on American Muslims. Beginning today, we will release three white papers looking at how recent events inform the current political cycle, linking terrorism, political rhetoric, and media coverage with particular reference to the impact on American Muslims. The motivation is to improve the understanding of these relationships, and to engage journalists and social media companies in developing improved reporting of terrorism in a live, digital environment for the benefit of everyone in society.

Republican candidate Donald Trump’s racist language and xenophobic pledges are tapping into an electorate already made fearful by the perceived threats of global terrorism. The violent attacks over the past year—in the US and France, in particular—have provided a highly charged backdrop for an already polarized campaign. In December 2015 Trump’s campaign released a statement on the mass shooting in San Bernardino by suspected ISIS sympathizers, saying, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Trump’s alarmist rhetoric, far from undermining his candidacy, spurred him to a resounding victory over other Republican contenders. The initial success of Trump’s candidacy necessitates a widespread examination of the media’s role in amplifying the divisive extremism and falsehoods of his campaign.

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Covering terrorism brings its own challenges for media organizations and increasingly for social media companies, too. Journalists and the press have historically played a dual role of both amplifying and interrogating campaign messages and political statements. Reporting terrorist attacks fulfills the aims of the terrorism itself in spreading fear, but stifling or limiting coverage can fuel both distrust in the news media and undemocratic practices such as censorship.

In the past decade, the mainstream media has been joined by a plethora of social platforms in forming the public discussion around terror. This has allowed candidates, propagandists, activists, and all citizens to contribute to an often unmediated political debate. As technology companies expand into publishing territory, they occupy an increasingly important and sometimes conflicted position. At a White House summit on combating terrorism, Facebook, Google, and Twitter were key participants. 

Writer and lawyer Rafia Zakaria focuses on research of search and social media to show how the rhetoric and discussion of Muslims in relation to terrorism not only creates a skewed public discourse but also puts US Muslims in a special category of those tracked, surveilled, and discriminated against by law. Journalist Burhan Wazir examines case studies from the past twenty years to show how the links between terrorism, political messaging, and reporting have evolved. Charlie Beckett, director of the London School of Economics media policy think tank POLIS, examines how the standards and guidelines for reporting and editing during terrorist attacks might be developed and modified for a digital world.

Their initial reporting highlights both the lack of standardized best practices and the nature of the challenges a distributed news environment presents.

The papers, each of which will be accompanied by an edited excerpt, emphasize the need for robust protection of First Amendment rights in the US, and call upon the social platforms to enter into regular conversation with publishers on editorial decisions and content guidelines.

We are grateful to those who helped shape and deliver the project. The support of Democracy Fund Voice for commissioning the project, the editors Paul Harris and Nausicaa Renner for helping shape and deliver the papers against a tight deadline, Kathy Zhang at the Tow Center for orchestrating the ongoing activity and events in this area, and the staff at Columbia Journalism School, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the Tow Center for their tireless contributions.

We look forward to feedback and responses and continuing our work in this area over the coming weeks and months.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.