More Than Words

Posted On 20 Dec 2019
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The head of Counter-Terrorism Policing has encouraged Editors working in the UK’s media to assist in building a partnership which could help reduce the threat of terrorism.

Addressing the Society of Editors’ Annual Conference in central London, Metropolitan Police Service Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu informed media industry representatives that he wants to emulate the relationship the Met has forged with the Samaritans in terms of the latter reporting on suicide. It’s an approach Basu firmly believes could prevent media coverage of terrorism from inadvertently amplifying the threat now posed.

The Samaritans and the World Health Organisation report substantial evidence showing the links between the media depiction of suicide and the spread of specific behaviours among vulnerable people. This is known as ‘suicide contagion’. Basu asserts that the same theory could be applied for the reporting of terrorism, and has therefore called upon the UK’s myriad media outlets to work together with policing and security experts in a concerted bid to reduce the threat.

“The risk of influencing suicides increases if reports include descriptions of suicide methods, if the story is placed prominently and if the coverage is extensive or sensationalised,” urged Basu. “The positive relationship between the Samaritans campaigners and the media has helped shape how suicide is reported and has almost certainly saved lives. If reporting can be seen through this lens for suicide, then why not for terrorism?”

Basu went on to observe: “Yes, they are different phenomena, but if the evidence suggests that a person vulnerable to suicidal thoughts can be motivated to act by over-identification with a celebrity suicide, then could an individual who’s vulnerable to radicalisation be triggered to act by the style of media reports describing terrorism?”

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack in New Zealand, Basu published an open letter to the UK’s media asking for greater care in the reporting of terrorism, at least in part influenced by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to publicise the name of the attacker.

Basu also revealed that he has asked the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) – the world’s oldest independent Think Tank on international defence and security – to analyse academic research into ‘social contagion theory’ and test the concept that media reporting of terrorist events could indeed encourage the spread of specific behaviour among like-minded individuals.

He added: “RUSI’s emerging findings suggest that how journalists frame their reports and the language they choose can have an impact. There are steps which can be followed to reduce that impact and mitigate the contagion effect.”

Basu is wholly correct in suggesting that, by acting as peacemakers and portraying terrorists as they truly are, journalists can heighten public awareness of today’s security threats in a non-dramatic fashion. They can also encourage constructive public conversation and debate on terrorism’s many harmful social and political implications and why the terrorists must be stopped. Indeed, it’s their moral duty to do exactly that.

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.