Kenyans are in shock at the events that occurred earlier this week at the DusitD2, an upscale hotel and office complex in Nairobi. Unlike the Westgate attack, the response was swift and the loss of life curtailed. However, the similarities that remain show that a range of ethical missteps were taken by both the general public and the media. We take a look at some of them:
Information takes time
Coverage for the sake of coverage is not okay. As Forbes magazine stated in an article on the ethics of reporting a terrorist attack, “It takes time to get the facts. Three hours, or even three days, isn’t enough time to get to the bottom of acts of violence. Filling up airtime with idle speculation doesn’t provide a public service. Rather, it frustrates us by intensifying the obvious: we just don’t know the answer yet.”
Watching the real time coverage of the DusitD2 attack was cringe worthy and futile. The media bumbled, giving speculative information for hours. This in no way served to lessen the anxiety of the public.
“It is unethical for news organisations to waste their time and ours with guessing games and hypothetical explanations after a violent incident has occurred. Just because there are 24 hours in a day doesn’t mean that every hour has to be filled with news that has no meaningful content,” the Forbes article concluded.
Indira Lakshmanan, a veteran journalist who holds a chair in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in the US, said in an interview with NPR:
“I think the problem with this is that by playing this endless loop of the same images of terrified people running away from the scene of an attack, we are essentially playing into the hands of the terrorists. We’re doing exactly what the terrorists want. We know – study after study shows that – terrorist groups (are) extremely savvy about the use of social media and mass media.”
“They, in fact, use this spotlight in order to recruit among vulnerable people who are attracted to this sense of notoriety.”
“Terrorist groups use the spotlight of social media to recruit among vulnerable people who are attracted to this sense of notoriety.” – Indira Lakshmanan
Facts, not forwards
Misinformation, or scanty information, is the leading cause of panic in any situation. It is especially alarming in situations of life and death and could worsen them significantly. This, coupled with the lack of clarity as the situation unravels, is a sure-fire recipe for mass hysteria.
In an attempt to regain a sense of control, the public has a tendency to latch on to random and often unsubstantiated information. This information is usually sensationalist in its language and either grossly exaggerates the situation on the ground or it is blatantly false and misleading.
Instead of unthinkingly forwarding information as received, the public should rather track credible news or aid outlets, both online and offline, for information. Forwards are the worst way to consume and share information during attacks such as these, given that they could stem from anywhere – and this includes sinister sources. You could in fact be increasing the attacker’s advantage and worsening the circumstances for both those in danger and their loved ones.
The responsible intake of information and even more responsible sharing is paramount. Terrorism, by extension, is an act of communication, as Alex P Schmid and J de Graaf so eloquently argued in their book Violence as Communication: Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media.
The US Department of Defence defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
In an article by Lauren Williams of the Ethics Center on the 2017 attacks in London, she points out that “without the ability to be broadcast on a mass scale, terrorists’ ability to instill fear – to terrorise – becomes mute. By providing such a disproportionate platform to the crimes of the London attacker, (we) were all but doing the terrorists’ work for them. We became accomplices to their crimes.”
Carnage for clickbait
Unfortunately some news outlets use these situations to create hype and buzz for their publications. One such publication, The New York Times, deemed it acceptable to use a close-up image of a deceased victim in their article on the attack.
There is an editorial bias in mass media that sees events, topics and pictures in news stories being over-hyped and biased impressions of events being presented as click bait.
The public has come out in strong protest of this practice, calling for the protection of victims and the preservation of their dignity. This has sparked a discussion on the aim of publishing such stories and images and whether this is warranted.
On one hand, the media feels that showing these images brings the tragedy into vivid focus and garners support for those affected. BRIGHT’s visuals editor, Marion Durand, stated. “As a photo editor, I don’t think we can shy away from images of dead bodies,” she says. “It’s not the answer. You have to show what’s happening.”
On the other hand, there is an enraged public that refuses to accept what has been a long history of the problematic depiction of brown and black bodies in Western media – not to mention that this real time coverage means loved ones often end up learning of their losses via the press.
Surely the inhumanity and indignity that is the overall effect of these images should trump sensationalist journalism every time?