Tow Takeaways: How Should Journalism Cover Terrorism?

Photo: Nicki Softness/Tow Center

Photo: Nicki Softness/Tow Center

By Nicki A. Softness | @nickisoftness

With a 24-hour news cycle, journalists face incredible pressure to report quickly, and ideally, first. This speed can result in dangerous and inaccurate rhetoric and information. As molders of public opinion, journalists have to pay particularly careful attention to how they cover terror attacks, and understand how their rhetoric can create a fearful or Islamophobic society.  

On October 17, the Tow Center hosted a panel with former Al Jazeera opinion editor Burhan Wazir and Charlie Beckett, London School of Economics professor and POLIS think tank director, to discuss the evolving relationship between journalism and terrorism. At the panel moderated by Tow director, Emily Bell, Wazir and Beckett discussed their reports recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review as part of a series on covering terrorism.  

Wazir’s report, “Fear and the Ballot Box: How Political and Media Responses to Terrorism Influence Elections, explores four elections—in Israel, Spain, the U.S., and India—that followed acts of terrorism. He found that terror attacks indeed have a profound impact on elections, by heightening the public’s sense of security, reframing the political debate, and causing citizens to feel disillusioned with their incumbent governments. Notably, he reports that real-time coverage of attacks can prove detrimental to public trust in the government, especially if citizens feel barraged with inaccurate information.

Beckett’s report, “Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World,” suggests that we are in a cyclical era of “new terrorism, and new news media.” Inflammatory journalism only provides terrorists with larger audiences, and more opportunities to radicalize. Beckett believes this is irresponsible on the part of journalists.  “We can’t treat ISIS like Wild West cowboys, or the hipsters of horror,” he said at the panel.  

Photo: Nicki Softness/Tow Center

Photo: Nicki Softness/Tow Center

When do you call it “terrorism”?

The panel agreed that the media’s fascination with Islamic extremism is dangerous. The decision to frame attacks by domestic perpetrators as isolated incidents, and those conducted by ISIS as terror, “reinforces stereotypes, and allows for simplistic responses from politicians, and the unthinking discourse we see in politics,” Beckett said. “We need to do better.”

Wazir added that newsrooms constantly struggle with this debate: “There’s definitely a general awareness that if you scream ‘terrorism’ after an event, there will be a price to pay.”


SEO, speed and social media: the role of technology

Bell noted a present-day moral dilemma brought about by technological advances: Even responsible newsrooms that debate language choices often end up choosing inflammatory terminology. “The problem is online search functions.” she said. “If you don’t call it terrorism, people won’t find your story.”

The discussion then turned toward the role of technology companies. Companies such as Facebook and Alphabet’s Jigsaw are actively working to combat hate speech and intervene into the processes of terrorist recruitment, Bell said. Audience members questioned the practicality of these efforts, noting that shutting down terrorist Twitter accounts is like playing whack-a-mole, and prevents the government from monitoring suspects.

However, Beckett added that social media platforms, growing in power every day, are able to conduct profiling in ways news organizations never would. “Right or wrong, these are the places that it will be happening,” he said.

The panelists offered varied opinions on the benefits and disadvantages of these platforms, and of this unprecedented access. Beckett described a circular relationship between open source providers and journalists, nothing that social media may provide valuable source material and instant feedback to a journalist’s editorial choices, but also presents dangers such as groupthink and misinterpretation of trends. He said these dangers are particularly high during breaking news cycles.

Wazir added that this instant feedback cycle has erased some of the nuance that used to define politics and journalism. Speed receives priority over this nuance. Particularly as competing sources gain access to social media audiences, the story becomes broader and less thought-out. Beckett cautioned that while government authorities, bystanders, victims, and aggressors are able to reach communities, they do not yet garner the respect and trust that traditional journalists have.  

Nicki Softness is an MPA Candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a graduate research assistant to the Initiative on the Future of Cyber Risk. Find her at