Ruhi Khan, an ESRC Researcher at the LSE, and a journalist who was working with a leading broadcaster in India during the horrific Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, argues that the most important thing for journalists when they report on terror incidents, is to protect the victims – their security, privacy and dignity.
On 26 November 2008, Mumbai witnessed a horrific, unprecedented terror attack that saw terrorists at multiples locations – luxury hotels, a train station, hospital, popular café and a Jewish centre– ruthlessly and indiscriminately kill and destroy in a well-orchestrated and prolonged attack on the city’s civilians. The attacks left 166 people dead and hundreds more injured.
Yesterday, I was invited by the Indian High Commission in the UK and the Nehru Centre as a panellist on an event to commemorate the martyrs of 26/11. Thirteen years after the horrific incident, remembering the events as they unfolded then was a painful process.
In 2008, I was working with New Delhi Television (NDTV) in Mumbai as a principal correspondent covering crime and investigations, so I was following the terror investigations very closely and was on the ground reporting from several locations – sometimes when the attacks were LIVE, others when only the bullet holes and blood splashes remained. I saw the injured in hospitals, the dead in cremation grounds; broken hearts and broken lives almost everywhere.
I rarely speak about 26/11. On some level, I think the mind blocks it. It was a traumatic event for most people who suffered or witnessed the terror attacks. We don’t realise it when we are in it deep but at some point later the tragedy hits you hard. Later is also when we are able to reflect and introspect.
One way we can pay our respects to the victims of the 26/11 terror attacks – and by extension those of any attack – is to ensure that we, as journalists, centre the victims in our coverage. Not just years later in commemorative pieces, but starting with the on-the-ground reporting of terror attacks.
I believe the most important thing for journalists reporting on terror attacks is to be empathetic in their reportage. Empathy ensures that journalists report is in a way that is informative but also respectful to the victims of the terror attack.
Today’s media, in particular in India, is consumed by a focus on breaking news, driven largely by the political economy of the media. It’s all about reporting first. Instead, it should be about reporting right. While covering acts of terrorism, it is important to reflect rather than rush. Reflection helps to ensure that the fundamental norms and values of journalism are adhered to in all reportage. Good journalism must protect the victims: their security, privacy and dignity.
Terrorism as a media phenomenon
Terrorism thrives on communication and this makes it a media phenomenon. Free media is a basic tenet of any democracy and this instrument is used by terrorists to the fullest. For terrorists to spread terror among a wider audience, media is the vehicle. For the media, terror events are crucial to cover.
Terrorists ensure that their acts fit in with media’s definition of news – timely and with a high entertainment value to prolong the media coverage and ensure it both spreads fear far and wide, and also helps terror organisations gain more radical potential recruits. American historian Walter Laqueur argues that terrorist’s act by itself is nothing; publicity is all. He goes on to call journalists terrorists’ best friends:
It has been said that journalists are terrorists’ best friends, because they are willing to give terrorist operations maximum exposure. It simply means that violence is news, whereas peace and harmony are not. The terrorists need the media, and the media find in terrorism all the ingredients of an exciting story.
Thinking back to 26/11, the media coverage of National Security Guard commandos gave the terrorists a window into their combat strategies. Broadcast media began relaying news of helicopters trying to land on the roofs of Nariman House and Oberio Trident Hotel to rescue hostages held by the terrorists. Indian government cited that phone intercepts between the terrorists and their handlers mentioned the movements of the commandos and their operational strategies that alerted the terrorists, thus putting victims’ lives at risk.
With increasing proliferation of social media, this problem has only accelerated and continues to do so. Social media amplifies videos linked to terror news, videos that are unverifiable and could be potentially fake. Often while waiting for official sources to give information, there is a tendency to run unverified information or let eyewitnesses interpret and speculate on motives, simply to feed the news cycle. Editors need to be extra vigilant to ensure no unverified information is perpetuated through their channels in a way that fans rumours or risks the lives of victims and the public.
‘Theatre of terror’
When we identify victims of terror attacks, its often those that directly suffered violence. However, we must remember that their families and friends also suffer and should be treated as victims.
Some media scholars call terrorist incidents as “theatre of terror” where media provides the stage in which the actors – perpetrators and victims – perform to enthral the audience. According to Gabriel Weimann: “While the terrorists may write the scripts and perform the drama, the “theatre of terror” only becomes possible when the media provide the stage and access to a worldwide audience… Terrorism is aimed at people watching, not the actual victims”.
Terrorism reporting is not theatre. It concerns real people, vulnerable victims with valid fears, who simply want to carry on without the spotlight thrust upon their raw emotions, coercing them into becoming a spectacle. Too often, family members learn about losing loved ones on television, or when a reporter calls for a quote or a microphone is thrust at their face for a comment.
Terrorism reporting is not theatre. It concerns real people, vulnerable victims with valid fears, who simply want to carry on without the spotlight thrust upon their raw emotions, coercing them into becoming a spectacle.
On the panel at yesterday’s commemoration event was Divya Salaskar, who at 21 years of age, lost her father, a brave police officer and her ‘hero,’ in a confrontation with the terrorists. She recalled her unbearable shock and grief and how when her father’s body was brought to their house the next day, all the cameras went clicking and a journalist asked her: ‘How do you feel?’
Approaching someone in a state of shock and grief is ethically wrong on many fronts and we need to think very carefully about not turning victims into spectacles or further traumatising them by insisting they speak to the media. According to the UN, the rights of victims of terrorism to privacy and respect for their family life should be protected against unjustified intrusion by the media.
Earlier this month, a UK-based report titled A Second Trauma found that media’s intrusion and harassment was at “endemic” levels. The report was released by the organisation Survivors against Terror, set up by people injured and/or bereaved by terrorism and was based on a survey of 116 survivors, including victims of the Manchester Arena and Fishmonger Hall terror attacks and also others like Brendan Cox, the husband of slain MP Jo Cox. The report found that 59% of the respondents had personally experienced media intrusion, mostly within 48 hours of an attack. It recommended that media organisations do not contact people seriously injured in a terrorist attack or bereaved relatives of the victims for at least two days. It also called for the media not to publish pictures of the seriously injured or the bereaved without permission of the family.
Of course, there is always intense pressure on the media to convey the terror scene and the event with accuracy and vividness, and to relay the reactions and emotions of people at the spot and people directly affected by the event. Victims and survivors must be in the focus of media coverage. However, caution and judgment must be applied before publishing their names, details of the attack or any images, and all such information must be verified through official sources and restraint must be applied to not turn victims into props in this theatre of terror.
Any imagery has a profound impact, on the families of the victims and even the general public. It must be absolutely paramount to preserve the dignity of the victims as well as the dignity of their family and friends. Techniques like deleting certain visuals, blurring and wide shots could be used to be more sensitive. Trigger warnings and disclaimers should be put in place.
Journalists as essential workers
Also, it’s important to remember that during terror events, journalists also risk their lives to bring in news. They are very much a part of the ecosystem of essential workers in a terror attack. They too have to react quickly and respond to emergency situations around them. Their job is to bring truth to the public which includes accurately describing what is happening, helping curb fears and panic, supporting the public to make informed decisions, build resilience and help the recovery from the tragic events. Journalists, no doubt, have to tread a fine line to balance public demands with ethical considerations. It’s a vital job, and not an easy one.
My experience with the Indian media has made it glaringly evident that training and support for journalists covering terror attacks is lacking. This needs to be planned as a consensus between media bosses, editors and journalists where the main consideration should be the ethics of reporting on terror events. Here are some recommendations:
- Creating a terror reporting handbook with detailed guidelines on how to cover terrorism news which should include both the episodic coverage of the terror incident and reporting on the ensuing terror investigations. This could ensure that news coverage of unfolding terror incidences does not pose security risks to the victims and the public, or hampers any trial that follows.
- Providing training on the use of sources, language, imagery and reporting on contextual background to terror events to prevent the spread of unverified or false information that could spread rumours, dangerous stereotypes or support terrorist agendas.
- Ethical deliberations on specific cases will provide guidance on how to approach victims and ensure due diligence has been applied to news reports to ensure that victims’ safety, privacy and dignity has not been compromised.
- A periodic review would offer an opportunity to take stock of the past coverage, highlight best practices, discuss problems and find solutions. This could also include exchange of best practices between news organisations- both local and global.
- Putting a support system in place to ensure that the physical health and mental well-being of journalists, who cover traumatic events like terror attacks, are prioritised.
Mumbai is no stranger to terror attacks. Yet the city was clearly not prepared for such an unprecedented attack of epic proportions. Mistakes were made. Yet every mistake gives an opportunity to learn. The media’s biggest failure was to not centre the victims in its coverage of the 26/11 attacks. Terror coverage must always focus on the victims. Their security, privacy and dignity should always take precedence over any speculation and spectacle that feeds into the media’s ‘theatre of terror’.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.