Reporting on violent extremism and terrorism: Guidelines for journalists

When bombs exploded in Kampala on Tuesday, 16 November 2021, media houses dispatched teams to the scenes to report in real-time. However, keen news consumers almost immediately raised professional and ethical concerns regarding the way some of the journalists reported. They relayed gruesome imagery. And some of the “news” amounted to false alarms and misinformation. 

“To break news, requires rigour, independent verification (or credible eyewitness accounts), irrefutable confirmation and proof points. Above all, calls for self-restraint (judgment), empathy and sensitivity. Graphic images of dead or injured are in bad taste,” tweeted Jimmy Kiberu, a communications professional. 

On another forum, Dr George Lugalambi, a media development consultant, said: “Reporters should familiarise themselves with the accurate language and terms when covering bomb-related incidents. e.g. pay attention to the use of the terms “disarm” and “detonate” in relation to defusing an unexploded device. Are they interchangeable?” 

Mr Charles Bichachi, the public editor at Nation Media Group-Uganda, spoke of the need to minimise harm. 

“The insensitive photographing & crowding by journalists of Mulago Hospital ward where victims of twin explosions in Kampala this morning are being treated is quite unnerving. Members of the Press, as you chase story, always remember to minimise harm & have empathy for victims,” he tweeted. 

Citizens expect the media to inform them as completely as possible without going overboard or resorting to sensationalism. 

We have therefore compiled key resources to guide journalists at the frontline and newsrooms in general. 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) lists nine guiding principles: 

  1. Reporting on cases of violent extremism and terrorism must be balanced. To what extent the media should give space to perpetrator and the influencing ideology must be the result of serious editorial assessment, which will avoid any generalization.     
  2. In the first reports from the field, journalists will be led by verified facts, while opinions, perspectives and analysis of the event should be conducted at later stage. This means that field reports should be kept separate from the expert analysis.
  3. Journalists have a responsibility to use the official, credible and trusted sources of information, to check them and, if necessary, protect their identity.     
  4. The information should be conveyed as accurately and as unambiguously as possible in order to minimize interpretation.      
  5. In qualifying the crime, only official information of the institutions involved in the investigation should be used.    
  6. In order to show the extent of the attack, publishing of photographs and videos requires a balance between the protection of dignity of the victims and their families and the interest of the public.     
  7. Victims and survivors must be in the focus of media coverage. For publishing their names, extent and circumstances of the attack, the number of the killed and injured only official sources of information should be used.      
  8. Journalists shall not allow eyewitnesses to interpret and analyze motives of an attack.
  9. In case of spread of hate speech, panic and fear, the media will use available tools on social media and communication channels to suppress them.

Download or read the full document here. 

Other resources for journalists  

UNESCO: Terrorism and the media: a handbook for journalists

IMS and Kenya Media Council: A Handbook on Reporting Terrorism 

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma: Resources on Terrorism

Internews: Handbook: A conflict sensitive approach to reporting on conflict and violent extremism

Internews: Reporting Atrocities: A Toolbox for Journalists Covering Violent Conflict and Atrocities

UNODC: Good Practices in Supporting Victims of Terrorism within the Criminal Justice Framework

Image by BADRU KATUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)

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