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More Than Words

by Brian Sims

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.

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