Reporting on terrorism: Call for 48-hr ban on media contact with survivors

Reporting on terrorism: Call for 48-hour ban on contacting survivors meets resistance from media

media terror attacks

The UK’s largest press regulator has said the media must be able to report “freely and in the public interest” as survivors of terrorism called for curbs on reporting.

Survivors Against Terror wants the media to abide by a “voluntary agreement” not to contact the bereaved or survivors for at least 48 hours after a terror attack.

However, the founder of the Ethical Journalism Network told Press Gazette this would be impossible to impose and “very worrying for press freedom”.

The survivors group similarly wants the media to agree not to publish images of the bereaved or seriously injured without family permission, and not to use pictures of or congregate outside family homes.

“Images of the deceased should not be used on the same page as any images (if used) of perpetrators,” the group added.

The recommendations came in a report entitled A Second Trauma, based on the views and testimony of 116 survivors of terror attacks including those at Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Parsons Green in 2017, the mass shootings at a Tunisia tourist resort and a Paris concert venue in 2015, and the 7/7 London Tube and bus bombings in 2005.

Data company Kantar helped survey the survivors between 2019 and 2021.

Of the 116 terror attack survivors and bereaved family members surveyed, six in ten (59%) experienced what they considered to be media intrusion, half of which (48%) came within 24 hours of the attack.

Despite this 55% of the respondents had positive experiences with the media.

The report also suggested the creation of a publicly funded Survivors’ Support Hub which would help people in dealings with the media as part of its remit.

“This, we feel, would be beneficial to both survivors and the media, creating a body trusted by both,” the report said.

It said the hub – or, alternatively, the police – should be able to publicly name outlets who are harassing survivors to the relevant regulator and ban them from attending press conferences or events such as planned interviews.

In addition, news outlets should agree not to name any victims until it has been confirmed their loved ones have been told. A new system run by local police forces should carry this out, the report said, with a recognition that the information should be provided in a timely manner.

The group is calling on broadcast watchdog Ofcom and press regulators IPSO and Impress to agree and publish new guidance, including the recommendations shared in the report, to be incorporated by all media outlets with a “zero-tolerance approach” adopted by editors.

Each of the regulators already has its own widely adopted code of practice. In IPSO’s case, this is supported by guidelines for reporting on major incidents published in 2019 after journalists were accused of behaving “very badly” in the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester terror attack.

Journalists should report ‘freely’

A spokesperson for IPSO told Press Gazette it supported the report but said journalists must still be able to report on events “freely and in the public interest”.

“As the independent regulator of most newspapers and magazines in the UK, IPSO works closely with external organisations where they have concerns which intersect with the Editors’ Code, the set of rules it regulates,” they said.

“IPSO worked with Survivors Against Terror on their recent report to provide information about how we can help victims, survivors and their families after a terror attack or major incident. We recognise the first 48 hours after an attack are crucial and we are working closely with first responders and others to let them know how IPSO can help in these situations.

“IPSO’s guidance for editors and journalists and information for the public on reporting of major incidents focus on how the Editors’ Code applies in these situations and highlight services such as privacy notices. We are supportive of the report’s recommendation for a Survivors Hub as we know in the aftermath of an attack it can be difficult to find information.

“While of course some of the situations described in the report are difficult and upsetting, it is very important that journalists are able to report on these events freely and in the public interest, in line with the standards set by the Editors’ Code of Practice.”

Ed Procter, chief executive of Royal Charter-recognised press regulator Impress, told Press Gazette he had been contacted by Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox who is one of the bereaved leading the report, ahead of its publication.

Impress is already undergoing a review of its Standards Code and Procter said the report’s recommendations would be taken into account in areas such as privacy, harassment, and how the public interest test is carried out. Standards should cover the entire newsgathering process and not just published material, he added. The reworked Standards Code is due to be published next summer.

A spokesperson for Ofcom said: “Consistent with the right to freedom of expression, there is clear public interest in the reporting of terror attacks, and, in line with our rules and guidance, the privacy of victims and their families must be respected.”

Dawn Alford, executive director for the Society of Editors, said: “This is a timely response on an important and sensitive subject. We will of course be studying the report in detail.”

‘Dangerous to prohibit investigating’

Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, told Press Gazette he felt sympathetic for the survivors and that it was right to call out “intrusiveness and bad behaviour” of the media, which should be “as sensitive as they possibly can be”.

But he said banning journalists from asking questions, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an incident when there is a “great deal of public concern”, would pose the “real danger that the public interest won’t be served at all” and even amount to censorship.

“I’m not saying media have carte blanche to ride roughshod over people’s feelings but it would be dangerous for the media to be prohibited from investigating, asking questions and talking to people,” he said.

White added: “The reality of it is sometimes immediately after a disaster like this survivors will want to talk. They will want to tell their story. To have a quite arbitrary ban on media operating and to be able to talk to survivors and to ask questions would be absurd and very worrying for press freedom. It really isn’t something we would support at all, but we do have sympathy for the concerns that have been expressed here.

“We’ve got to ask news media and journalists to show restraint and be careful in the way they work and be sensitive to the needs of survivors… but we should not be shackling them with rules that will stop them being able to tell the story.”

A number of individual journalists also expressed a mixture of support and hesitations about the report’s recommendations.

Mail on Sunday reporter Michael Powell said the proposals were “well-meaning” but “unworkable especially in the age of social media”.

“I fear it will lead to an information vacuum which allows conspiracy theories to thrive after such attacks,” he tweeted.

AFP’s former editor-in-chief Eric Wishart said: “Journalists have a duty of care to victims but also have a duty to inform, and setting arbitrary limits on coverage is not the answer. Responsible media must respect their codes of ethics, but graphic images and terrorist propaganda are often spread unfiltered on social media.”

‘It has to be done’

Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford wrote in 2017 after the Manchester Arena terror attack in which 22 people were killed that it would be “disrespectful” to write a story about someone’s death or serious injury without contacting their family.

“It is a task which no journalist enjoys, but it has to be done. And as a mark of respect it is something which should be done face to face,” he wrote, adding that there must be limits such as respecting someone’s wishes not to be contacted whether sent directly, through police, or perhaps through IPSO’s private advisory notice service.

[Read more: Why ‘death knocks’ are a difficult but essential part of the job for journalists]

However not all journalists feel the same – freelance journalist Rob McGibbon, who has done so-called death knocks for local papers and The Sun, strongly supports the report and called for the print press to re-evaluate the practice.

He told Press Gazette: “The so-called death knock is an abhorrent breach of privacy that is always done with cynical intent under the cloak of journalism. I think the practice should be seriously reviewed, and then stopped. The fact that it has always been done should not be the reason to keep doing it.

“In a similar way to how the reporting of suicides has been changed for the better in recent years, so can the way reporters are expected to follow up a story involving personal tragedy.

“The media defence is always that doing a death knock gives bereaved people the chance to speak up. That excuse is disingenuous baloney.  Death knocks are nothing more than callous fishing expeditions in search of an exclusive. Some of the tactics described in this report are shameful and disgusting – but not remotely surprising. This kind of stuff has been going on for decades – but now is the time for change.

“Broadcast companies are as much to blame for intrusion in the wake of a big news story. I think that change is in the hands of a few key newspaper editors. If they decide to take the lead here, then the rest of the media will have no choice but to follow. I hope something can happen.”

‘Pestering tipped over into pressure’

More than a third (37%) of the survivors surveyed wished the media did not report terrorists’ names at all. Some 54% said using names occasionally is fine but currently they are used too often and could lead to the terrorists gaining notoriety, while 9% said reporting their names is important and should continue.

The most common type of intrusion was pressure to talk or pestering from one or more journalists, the impact of which was augmented when it came immediately after the incident. National newspapers, broadcasters, local journalists, agencies and freelances were all mentioned.

The report said in some cases the “pestering tipped over into pressure”. One respondent said: “Received direct messages on social media from a reporter, initially pretending to be sympathetic but as soon as I denied his request for an interview, he started harassing me and saying he could print whatever he wanted without his consent as I had just turned 18. We eventually had to get lawyers involved to prevent anything from being printed.”

Some felt they had suffered active misrepresentation or been misled. The report said: “Some survivors felt that some journalists used the sense of confusion and chaos to bounce survivors into revealing information they didn’t want to.”

One respondent said: “Various journalists called my workplace. One physically came to my work and asked for me, pretending to be a customer, and then barraged me with questions.”

Another said they agreed to do an interview and was taken in a car by the journalist who said they were “finding a good place” to do it. “They pulled up on the road where Edgware Road station is and then filmed my reaction walking up to it,” they said. “I hadn’t been there since the attack. I had no control over the situation and my mental health was really bad then. I was extremely vulnerable and they completely took advantage to get a good story.”

Other issues included journalists breaking the news of deaths to family members, and invasion of privacy including children who survived the Manchester Arena terror attack being approached.

One survivor said: “Journalists sending photos of me covered in blood to family members for a reaction, journalists trying to get into my hospital ward to question me, and journalists ambushing friends at my school and online to ask questions about my background and life.”

Reporting on Terrorism: Tips from Ethical Journalism Network founder Aidan Whites:
  1. Always make sure your contact with survivors is in safe and secure surroundings
  2. Ensure that they are not in shock or otherwise unable to talk freely
  3. Your first duty is to their welfare – make sure they are receiving or have received medical treatment if they need it
  4. Do not talk to young people or children without the permission of a responsible adult or in the presence of an adult
  5. Inform the people you talk to of who you are, your role and provide reassurance of their safety
  6. Do not hinder or obstruct the rescue effort and be guided by the responsible authorities
  7. Do not take pictures or recordings without the permission of your sources

Picture: Reuters/Peter Nicholls 

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