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Manchester and the media: what coverage of the terrorist attack tells us about ourselves

Much of the focus of people’s and the media’s attentions is on the victims of terrorism rather than the perpetrators. AAP/Nigel Roddis

Manchester and the media: what coverage of the terrorist attack tells us about ourselves

The Manchester bomb attack, in which 22 people died, took place last Tuesday Australian time, and was a major front-page story for The Age, The Australian and the Herald Sun on the Wednesday and Thursday mornings.

The Herald Sun devoted its first 11 pages to the bombing on Wednesday and another seven to it on Thursday. By Friday, Manchester had disappeared entirely from the front page of The Age, was reduced to a side column on the front page of The Australian and a small box at the bottom of the Herald Sun’s page one.

For as long as I can remember, media critics have cried foul that European and American deaths appear to be worth more in news terms than similar deaths in the Middle East. To which journalists mostly replied that “proximity” in a cultural (if not geographical) sense, or “rarity”, were the reasons.

So, is it now the case that European terror attacks have become normalised? Or is it just that news cycles have rightly moved on to other important news stories closer to home?

In Britain, the coverage is still around the clock. On Wednesday the stories and photographs on the front pages were mostly about the victims. There was a particular focus on the youngest girl, eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, who featured on the front pages of all mainstream media.

This front page from The Sun, which compared the little girl to the bomber under the banner headline of “Pure Evil”, was particularly striking.

The Sun. Twitter

Across the week the media have reported on the threat level rise to “critical”, the hunt for other members of the terror group, soldiers on the streets, and public mourning.

By Sunday, the front pages were back in unison, with almost all mainstream newspapers’ front pages showing CCTV pictures of “the casual killer” Salman Abedi – this time from the day of the bombing.

Opinion about the media’s coverage of these incidents is intense on social media and elsewhere. The New York Times’ photograph of the bombing aftermath was widely seen as irresponsible during an ongoing security operation, and it led to a diplomatic row between the UK and US over security leaks.

There is no shortage of advice offered to journalists on responsible reporting. In March, UNESCO published a 110-page booklet, Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists. On page 44, it lists 21 “Key Points” to be aware of in the coverage of terrorism. These include:

  • the dangers inherent in live broadcasting;

  • caution about reporting leaks and unverified information;

  • avoiding sensationalism;

  • keeping a sense of proportion;

  • not glamorising terrorists;

  • respecting the dignity of victims; and

  • being careful about the language used.

In February, in interviews conducted for a research project I am undertaking with Verica Rupar about terrorism coverage, I spoke to several French media editors about how they saw their editorial roles. Due to France having witnessed several major terrorism attacks in the past few years, all reported they had evolved their coverage from experience.

The editor of Le Monde, Jérôme Fenoglio, told me that after the siege at the HyperCacher supermarket in January 2015, he had published a front-page photograph of one of the terrorists, Amedy Coulibaly, sitting next to his sub-machine gun while justifying the murder he was about to commit.

He said that following the Nice attack in July 2016, in which 84 people were killed, he decided against showing terrorists’ “self-justifying videos and selfies”, as he believed it was the terrorists’ intention to make everybody talk about them through their deaths. He said:

And so their deaths give a supplementary dimension to these documents that they prepare in advance and circulate everywhere. I don’t want to republish these documents because it means to play, to be imprisoned, to be a victim of their own games.

Fenoglio stressed that he wasn’t advocating censorship, but rather “editorial choice”. He was not going to glorify the deeds of terrorists by showing pictures of them, unless they were alive and still being hunted by the authorities.

After the siege at the HyperCacher, the 24-hour BFM Television channel was censured by France’s Higher Council for Broadcasting (CSA) and sued by hostages over claims the channel put people in danger by reporting on live television that hostages were hiding in the basement. This outlet and others were also accused of “disrupting the arrival of security forces”.

At the public service broadcaster, France Télévisions, the director of news Alexandre Kara said they are constantly updating their handbook of coverage to learn from their latest experience.

His corporation also refuses to rebroadcast “Islamic State propaganda” and only uses “neutral” photographs of terrorists – for example, from their ID cards, rather than anything that might portray them in a sympathetic light. He said that this decision was made “after the Bataclan”:

There has been a big debate in France about whether or not one should show the photograph or give the name of a person guilty of a terrorist act. We decided to continue to give the name and show the photo. One of the reasons is because a terrorist is a criminal, and we show the photos of criminals, so there’s no reason to not show a terrorist. And secondly, I think that in not showing terrorists you add to the arguments of the conspiracy theorists who think that we hide the truth.

However, like Fenoglio, he believes there is a difference between transparency about who did what, and the danger of showing the terrorists’ actions to be in any way heroic, thereby doing their proselytising for them.

The co-editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, said there is now a “civic state of mind” in terms of co-operation between the media and police “because everybody knows they can be attacked themselves”. The main point is not to help the terrorists with untimely revelations, but to concentrate on the victims, and then the hunt for the terrorists.

After the Bataclan, the paper put a team onto writing biographies of all 130 victims killed at the venue and elsewhere in Paris. These portraits and photographs are still available to view “in memoriam,” in agreement with the families.

While the British threat level has now fallen back from critical to “severe”, nobody is under any illusion that these kinds of attacks will cease any time soon. The way in which journalists cover them will remain under scrutiny, as bitter experience continues to force changes in reporting behaviour.