The right to know and the duty to protect: terrorism and the media

Empathy is needed for journalists to report on acts of terrorism in a way that is informative but also respectful to victims of the event.

As a media development organisation with more than hundred media partners on the ground in hot spots, we regularly see a dilemma—between the right to know and the duty to protect—while respecting the fundamental norms and values of journalism. Getting reliable information out to the public—especially in times of emergency—is a right in itself and integral for informed decision-making, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the victims who have suffered first-hand.

It is important to note that there is an inherent tension or contradiction between the journalist and the terrorist: the journalist wants the story out and the terrorist wants the publicity and to instil fear. In the process of reporting and covering these important stories, the journalist often instils or aggravates fear and the terrorist achieves what they want – attention, publicity and intimidation. But there are best practices, tools and recommendations to change this. Good practices protect the security, dignity and privacy of victims of terrorism in media coverage of the acts, while respecting freedom of expression and information.

A good example of balance between information and humanity is freelancer Joseph Mathenge’s coverage of the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi. To be able to capture images in the midst of a terror attack requires both skill and enormous bravery. Joseph Mathenge was not deterred by the sound of gunfire coming from the shopping mall, and he supported victims while recording what were to become iconic images.

When covering acts of terrorism, there should be no such thing for professional media as extreme urgency—fundamental norms and values of journalism must lead. In times of conflict, there are special sensitivities, for example, about the security of operational military plans, avoiding naming casualties until next of kin have been informed, and handling rumours; media need to consider these while continuing to maintain open debate. Here is where editorial guidelines—which clearly should state that editors should make sure that they have enough time to double-check the content before publishing—come into play. BBC Guidelines are a good case in point.

Part of the media’s job includes interviewing victims, survivors and families; this is perhaps the most difficult task facing any journalist. It requires an inordinate amount of sensitivity and there are both ethical and practical challenges related to this.

Ethically, there are inevitable concerns over the appropriateness of approaching someone in a state of shock and grief. The natural instinct is to protect their privacy and ensure they are being assisted. In any other situation, we would do so. But when management is demanding quotes and it is the media’s job to report and obtain quotes, it can conflict with our natural sense of respect and dignity. And then there are practical considerations. For example, a person who has been injured needs medical treatment before anything else. It is imperative that no one obstructs a victim’s access to medical treatment or a medic’s access to the victim. Everyone else, including reporters, must wait. Of course, there is also intense professional pressure on the media to convey the scene and an event with accuracy and vividness, and to convey the reactions and emotions of people at the scene and people directly affected by the event.

The international standards—set by the UN and Council of Europe—is that the rights of victims of terrorism to privacy and respect for their family life should be protected against unjustified intrusion by the media. Personal information must also be protected against unnecessary disclosure to the public in the course of judicial proceedings. 

Several declarations and recommendations by The Council of Europe also raise the value of self-regulatory measures, in full compliance with freedom of expression, to ensure the protection and private family life of victims. Victims’ right to respect for private life is also guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Practical examples of self-regulatory measures include guidelines such as the IFJ Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists or those provided by expert organisations such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organisation specialising in issues linked to the journalistic coverage of violence.

In addition to editorial and ethical considerations, national legislation on terrorism places legal obligations on individuals—including journalists—to disclose certain information to the police as soon as reasonably practicable. The journalist can thus face an ethical dilemma where they aim to protect their sources but at the same time are obliged to pass on information to authorities. It is important to remember that in some countries, legal obligations are being abused. 

From a media development perspective, good practices are to strengthen and promote self-regulation, professional standards and editorial ethics. One example of such a good practice from IMS is our joint work with the Media Council of Kenya to produce a handbook on reporting terrorism. The production of this handbook was underpinned by professional training and awareness-raising for journalists, media monitoring of the content, and dialogues between journalists and law enforcement.

Professional training includes many elements, from dealing with victims and families; to verifying facts in an environment of disinformation, misinformation and deep fakes; to interacting with law enforcement; to the issue-led journalism, when you pick the issue and follow up thoroughly. And finally, the safety of journalists: physical, digital and psychological safety.

Joseph Mathenge won the Media Council of Kenya Annual Journalism Excellence Awards and the CNN Journalist of the Year in 2014, but not for sensationalist photos. When reflecting on Joseph Mathenge’s award for covering the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi, his colleagues all mentioned one word concerning Joseph’s work: empathy.

Joseph Mathenge showed great empathy towards the victims on the scene.

Empathy is the most essential practice for media coverage of terrorism.

Good resources for journalists:

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