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Looking At How News Organizations Report On Terrorist Attacks


Let's turn now to a different side of this story which is that now that we know that there is a story, how should we be telling it? Last night and for much of the day if you turned on the cable networks or clicked on the home pages of most major news organizations, you were likely to see the same cell phone footage - frightened victims, pictures of emergency vehicles racing to the scene. And as these attacks and the images that go with them are becoming sadly more common, more people are asking if the way the American and, indeed, the international media cover these stories needs to change.

Indira Lakshmanan is one of the people asking that question. She's a veteran journalist, and she holds a chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. That's a nonprofit dedicated to journalism education. She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for joining us, Indira.

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, thanks so much for inviting me, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, you wrote about this - actually you wrote about this after the attack in Manchester two weeks ago. You said, look, yes, the attack is news, but does replaying footage of victims for hours or turning over the entire home page to this story as CNN, Fox News and Breitbart did, elevate the public understanding of why terrorism is committed or - and I'm editing a little bit here - or is it just lazy and sensationalist tabloid journalism blowing the murder of 22 people out of proportion to stoke fear? I take it your view is it's the latter.

LAKSHMANAN: (Laughter) My view certainly is it's the latter. And I think the problem with this is that by playing this endless loop of the same images of terrified people running away from the scene of an attack - we are essentially playing into the hands of the terrorists. We're doing exactly what the terrorists want.

We know - study after study shows that - terrorist groups and particularly ISIS is extremely savvy about the use of social media and mass media. They are looking for the spotlight. This is what they thrive on, and they, in fact, use this spotlight in order to recruit among vulnerable people who are attracted to this sense of notoriety.

MARTIN: But we also know that all terrorist attacks are not treated the same way. For example, yesterday in Kabul which experienced a horrific car bomb attack, you know, just a week ago, which killed 90 people and wounded hundreds of people just yesterday that seven people were killed and another suicide bombing at a funeral in Kabul. And we also know that somebody drove up to a bar, shot people in northern Mexico. You know, six people were killed, you know 22 people were injured.

That's equally horrific, but I would venture to say that most people don't know that those latter two things happened unless they are very close watchers of the news. And so the question would be why is it that some of these incidents receive a tremendous amount of attention and some of them don't?

LAKSHMANAN: You're right. And if you do a close analysis of the news, you'll see that Western media outlets, the closer that a terrorist attack is to the United States or to some Western country, the more coverage it gets. Now, in a way this is natural. We are naturally more worried and scared if an attack is happening in Orlando or in Paris or in Manchester, England, than we are if something is happening halfway around the world where we don't live or we don't know people who live there.

My issue is more with the fact that, you know, how do we cover this as journalists in a way that is for the people who we are trying to serve? Right? Our readers, our listeners, our viewers - what is the purpose of our coverage? Well, if we're news journalists, our purpose is to - we have to cover the news. If it happens, I'm not saying we should cover it up. Obviously, we have to cover it, but we have to elucidate, illuminate the incidents that have happened and inform people in some way, tell them more.

MARTIN: What does that look like? What does that sound like? How does that work?

LAKSHMANAN: Well, I would say add to the conversation. Tell people something they don't know, give them more information that is clear, that is precise, that is responsible, that is not based on bias or assumptions that have not yet been confirmed by authorities. So, for example, just yesterday, the president tweeted out a link from the Drudge Report that called the attack in London a terrorist attack before the authorities had done so.

As it turned out, that was correct, but for Drudge to be reporting that it was a terrorist attack before the authorities had even said so, London authorities came out and said please don't do this. You know, we don't know what this is yet. So you really have to be wary of unsupported theories because sometimes things aren't what they appear to be, and there are many, many cases where things that are were initially assumed to be terrorist attacks turned out to be just a crazy person who didn't have another agenda.

MARTIN: And the other point that you said in your piece is reconsider referring to terrorists as claiming responsibility. Aren't they admitting guilt? Tell me about that.

LAKSHMANAN: That's right. I mean, I dislike this convention of saying ISIS claimed responsibility for this in this. I mean, it's murder. You know, if a hundred people are killed, that's murder. That's not responsibility. It's not responsible in any way. So why are we adopting the lexicon of what they say? I mean, what I find really interesting is that study after study has shown that these groups thrive on the attention they get. Michael Jetter, a behavior economist studied 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 that were reported in The New York Times.

And he found that terrorist groups are increasingly seeking in recent years to exploit social and mass media. And what keeps them alive is the oxygen of this publicity. Another separate study found that terrorism deaths are the single most heavily covered type of death per capita in the first pages of The New York Times compared to every other way that a human can die. Again, this fuels the perception that we are living in some sort of a terrorist state out of proportion from the reality that it is.

MARTIN: But what then would be your metric for determining how much coverage something should get?

LAKSHMANAN: I think the coverage - the amount of coverage is determined by each organization. I'm talking about the quality of the coverage. I'm saying don't cover it in an ignorant way. Tell people something about who this person was, who did the attack, tell us something about the victims who suffered, tell us something about the agenda that's behind it, tell us something about how this city fought terrorism or solved this crime in an important way. You know, give us a solution that worked one place.

MARTIN: Well, clearly, there's a lot to talk about here, and I have the feeling this isn't going to be the last conversation we have about this. So thanks so much for coming in. That's Indira Lakshmanan. She is the Neumark Foundation Chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute. That's a nonprofit dedicated to journalism education. She's a veteran journalist. You may have heard here on NPR filling in for various hosts from time to time. Indira Lakshmanan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LAKSHMANAN: Michel, thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.