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New report into media coverage of terror underscores valuable role of the Press

Posted on: March 4, 2021 by Ian Murray

The Society of Editors has welcomed the fact a new report into how the UK media covers terrorism underscores the vital role of a free Press.

The report from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) launched today (March 4) examines how the UK media landscape affects the coverage of terrorist incidents. It sets out a number of recommendations for both media and police practice. 

A Complex Matter: Examining Reporting on Terrorism in the UK, authored by Dr Jessica White, is the second report from a year-long project studying terrorism and the media. It was commissioned by the Head of the UK’s Counter Terrorism Policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police.  

Following an initial study looking at the potential for media impact on radicalisation, recruitment, mobilisation to violence and imitation of terrorism, the new report examines the UK media environment and practices, how this shapes reporting on terrorist incidents, and the importance of the information relationship between journalists and the police. 

Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders including police, leading journalists from across the national-level UK print media landscape, and professional bodies such as Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and Society of Editors it presents an overview of the dynamics and factors shaping the role and impact of media reporting on terrorism.  

The report states: “The media is an essential provider of public information. Media and academic interviewees highlighted that while journalists are bound by responsibilities, there is a culture of independence in the UK’s media that must be respected.”

It adds: “The role that the media plays in information provision is essential to public knowledge, and a free press should be protected and preserved in a liberal democracy.”

The report continues: “The evidence gathered highlights how media reporting does not occur in a vacuum. There are multiple dynamics and factors that contribute to how, what, when and where the media reports on terrorism – which can, in turn, contribute to the potential impacts of that reporting on wider society. This paper highlights the importance of the relationship between the police and the media, and how cooperative and transparent information exchange can be beneficial to both.”

The report identifies the police relationship with the media as a significant contributing dynamic to the impact of media reporting on terrorism.

The report offers a series of recommendations for both police and media: 

Recommendations for the police include: 

  • Establishment of an educational programme to offer regular information sessions for news outlets.  
  • Hold briefings with the media both proactively to raise issues such as operational considerations which may arise during major incidents and reactively after incidents to illustrate and discuss issues through case studies of recent events.  
  • Provide timely and detailed information to help counteract mis- and disinformation during an active incident.  
  • Provide evidence of how media reporting can have negative or positive impacts to aid wider media discussions.  
  • Establish internal guidance for communications. Cooperate with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) for enforcement of privacy notices and harassment policies. 

Recommendations for the media include: 

  • Prioritise protection of the brand. In a world of ever-increasing competition over the consumption of media, news outlets should view adherence to the Editor’s Code of Practice and factual, objective reporting as a good business strategy. 
  • Engage in cross-industry discussion of the impact of reporting on terrorism.  
  • Establish internal written guidance to ingrain understanding of issues like volume, sensitivity, content and impact before events occur.  
  • Conduct regular training/engagement sessions for reporters and editors covering terrorism. 

Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner Specialist Operations, Metropolitan Police (pictured) said: ‘A Complex Matter: Examining Reporting on Terrorism in the UK’ is a remarkable research achievement. RUSI have delivered a balanced, unique and important piece of research, to help us understand how to make reporting of terrorism good for the public and bad for the terrorists.

Ian Murray, Society of Editors’ executive director, said the report emphasised the importance of an understanding between the media and the police and recognition of their distinct roles in protecting a free, democratic society.

“Every editor understands the careful balance that must be achieved in ensuring the public is kept informed of terrorist actions and threats and what is being done in their name to protect them but ensuring their work does not aid the terrorist in their aims.

“This report underscores the importance of a free media and the role it plays in a liberal democracy, not least in ensuring the public has trust in the police and the steps being taken to protect them.”