| | | Effective PR

Terrorism: reporting v publicity

Nigel Morris-Co...

Not long ago, it's hours not even a day, a man drove, at high-speed a rented van along pavements and up streets in the face of incoming traffic in Toronto, Canada.The man has been arrested and is in custody. He has been named as Alek Minassian, aged 26. Whatever Minassian's motive, one thing is clear: publicity was inevitable because the choice of weapon, the fact that it's in Canada and the fact that it took place only a few kilometres from a G7 ministers meeting convened to discuss developments in terrorism and counter-terrorism. Media has provided blanket coverage around the world. It's time to think about that.

According to NamesList.com, the name Minassian is Armenian with Greek roots and via Iran and Lebanon. It does not have clear religious affiliation and Minassian does not appear to have public ties to any outspoken group, according to local media which has worked hard to find anything. That militates against the argument that the attack was motivated by one of the "terrorism trigger" factors.

That's why the media coverage is so interesting and why now is the time to reopen the debate as to the dividing line between responsible reporting and irresponsible sensationalism.

As lorry, van and car attacks have become more common, the media coverage has become formulaic: there must be a photograph of the vehicle with its drivers' door open; if there is a logo on the vehicle that must be prominently shown; if there are bullet holes in the vehicle they must be shown both in wide shot and in close up; there must be both wide and close photographs of damage to the vehicle. Those, however, are secondary: the most important - although not necessarily at the top of the page, are photographs of blood, even if a body is covered or has been removed; a photograph of a shoe, on its own, must be present, or at least a handbag; photographs of people hunched over the injured, dying and dead should be featured prominently. Distraught people make good photo-copy, especially if they have a visible injury.

That's the so-called responsible, traditional media. So called social media has driven mainstream media to such action because there are views in showing gore and the uncensored platforms such as facebook, instagram, twitter and the like grab attention from those who think that they are part of something simply by commenting on such images.

This is where the challenges lie: if mainstream media do not adopt the same abhorrent tactics, they lose eyeballs to those who seek glory in the gory. That's a commercial matter. But there is a far more important matter for society: there is no editorial control over what information attaches to those images: they may be used to promote malevolence just as easily as to express disgust at it. That lack of editorial control over the original posting plus the re-circulation of the image and comments can cause immeasurable harm, as witness the case of the young Muslim woman targeted by radicals and mis-informed, wrongly-opinionated keyboard warriors when a photograph was published showing her using her phone at the scene of a van attack in London.

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