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What Guidelines Should the Media Follow in Its Coverage of Terrorist Acts?

Policy Prescriptions Based on French Media's Coverage of the 2015 Terrorist Attacks

Johanna Benhamou

Executive Summary

The year 2015, was marked for France by both the highest number of terrorist activity and by the occurrence of attacks responsible for the ‘largest number of casualties since the second world war’. Local media’s choices in the amount of time devoted to these attacks as well as in their way of presenting them, mirrored the country’s unpreparedness and lack of experience. Some journalists, forgetting about their civic duty, unwillingly assisted terrorists in endangering the lives of many hostages in crisis situations, as well as those of police forces during their interventions. Others, showed unforeseen terror, violating victims’ rights to human decency and paralyzing the public into fear and horror. All ultimately contributed, albeit involuntarily, into publicizing terrorists and their cause.

Based on some of the mistakes made by the media community during the 2015 attacks in France and building on the Superior Council on AudioVisual’s (CSA) conclusions of February 12, 2015, this paper aims at suggesting additional guidelines to journalists in order to guide their coverage of terrorist attacks in a productive yet mindful way. The prescribed policies rely on prior analysis of the relationship between media and terrorism and of previous policies implemented in the European Union and in France. Inspiration for these recommendations also stem from some Israeli media guidelines, as the country has had a broad experience in covering local terrorist acts and consequently implemented noteworthy policies. This article concludes that media should be encouraged by their respective equivalents of the CSA to:

  1. Avoid revealing critical information about ongoing hostage situations unless either; the security of hostages is no longer at threat and the termination of the crisis has been confirmed by more than one official source, or said information is essential to the immediate security of the larger population.

  2. Avoid broadcasting police operations while they are still ongoing.

  3. Avoid showing scenes of tremendous horror and/or panic.

  4. Prone a return to normal broadcasting programs as soon as every critical information about the terror attack has been communicated.

  5. Refrain from conducting and broadcasting terrorists’ interviews.