Today, Turkey is shaken by the terrorist attack that took place in Ankara, the nation's capital. The attack left nearly 100 dead and over 200 wounded in its wake. First of all, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences for the loved ones of those killed and pray for a hasty recovery for those injured.
Turkey isn't a country that is unfamiliar with terrorism. Although the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is the latest terrorist organization the country has had to fight, the fight against the PKK has been going on for decades, predating even the 9/11 attacks, a turning point in history regarding terrorism. Considering that the country has been familiar with terrorism for over 30 years, one might expect the media to share that familiarity and experience when it comes to covering it. Yet, I am saddened to say that this is not the case.
As a word, terrorism comes from terror, and it is used in the hope of political gains. By that reasoning, we can deduce that the success of terrorism lies in how widespread it can spread the terror. As a standalone attack, it can affect those who died, were wounded and their immediate circle of families and friends. But when we add the mass broadcasting and publishing media, as we know it, to the mix, the true goal becomes apparent. Thus we are faced with the age-old dilemma of journalism: How to cover terrorism?
I want to stress that the dilemma isn't about whether or not to cover terrorism. Ignoring terrorist attacks when your main goal is to inform the masses is quite impossible. The problem lies with the methods and wording of the said reports. In our pursuit to deliver news to our readers we must also be vigilant to not add to their fears that terrorist organizations work hard to cultivate. Before pointing out the grave errors the Turkish media repeatedly committed during the coverage of the bombings in Ankara, let me quote our chief ombudsman, İbrahim Altay, for comparison. Here are a couple of basic principles from the "Covering terrorism in turbulent times" article that was published on Aug. 3, 2015:
"-Hiding terror attacks from the public gives birth to doubt toward the media. Instead of hiding the news, we should report on it quickly, truthfully and completely."
"-When reporting on terrorism we must stay clear of provocative titles, without exception. Inching toward sensationalism in this area only serves conflict rather than peace. Using inflammatory language while focusing on horrifying details about the attack only serves the purpose of terrorism and provides a breeding ground for notions like hate, contempt and revenge."
"-We must be respectful of the grief of those hit by terrorism. Using photos taken at funeral ceremonies, especially close ups of grieving loved ones, is wrong. If possible, photos from funeral ceremonies should not be used at all."
"-In articles, we should not feature quotes or hate speech of those who instill hatred, ethnic discrimination and racism to the public, no matter who they are."
Although the principles seem pretty straightforward, like many similar ones from various sources and ethical guidelines, this last bombings showed us that they continue to be unheeded. Here are a few examples from the media on how not to cover terrorism:
One of the most dominant themes of the reports was stressing the fact that this attack was in Ankara, a very short distance from the country's bureaucratic heart, underlining the message that no one is safe when the state's heart isn't secure. That falls under the category of sensationalism.
The second example was the video of the bombing. Almost all of the media organizations featured the horrific video of the blast that was captured by a cell phone just like they did in the Suruç bombing that took place in Şanlıurfa on July 20, 2015. Guessing the effects of this video toward fear, grief and consequently hatred, wouldn't be a stretch. In other words, all of these emotions are precisely aligned with terrorism's goals.
Lastly, the wording of the reports and articles left much to be desired. I fail to see how the gruesome details describing how the body parts were scattered to be any sort of positive contribution to public safety, journalism or information. Headlines like "Bloody massacre" fall under the same category.
These attacks showed once again that we still have a long way to go. I also repeat once again the need for specialized expertise in the media when covering terrorism. Let me conclude by quoting American historian Walter Laqueur: "The terrorist's act by itself is nothing; publicity is all."
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