Terror in Chch

International media drops the ball on Sri Lanka terror coverage

Analysis: Unsubstantiated claims of retaliation led some of the biggest news sites in the world. Laura Walters looks at the responsibility of media in covering an increasingly volatile tit-for-tat war of terror.

On Tuesday evening, New Zealanders’ news feeds were filled with a flood of media reports claiming the Sri Lankan bombings, which killed more than 300 people, were revenge for the Christchurch mosque attacks.

The reports added validitity and oxygen to this growing, somewhat biblical, idea of a tit-for-tat terror war.

In response to these reports, Emma Beals, a Kiwi independent journalist who specialises in coverage of the Middle East, ISIS and terrorsim tweeted, “This is a terrifying statement”.

The New York Times carried Reuters copy on its homepage, with the headline: Sri Lanka Bomb Attacks Were Revenge for N.Zealand Mosque Killings: Minister

The United States’ National Public Radio (NPR) ran the headline: Sri Lanka Attacks May Have Been In Retaliation For New Zealand Massacre

The Guardian: Sri Lanka defence minister says bombings were response to killing of Muslims in Christchurch. And The Washington Post went with something similar.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal went with: Sri Lanka Bombers Were Reacting to New Zealand Mosque Shootings, Government Says. The subheading read: The country’s defense minister made the statement in Parliament but didn’t elaborate.

Reading further into these stories showed the Government official, who is a junior minister, did not offer any evidence or further information to back up the claim he made in Parliament.

But as media commentator Gavin Ellis said, this context was lost or relegated in international media coverage of the claim.

Ellis said he expected more of these major international publications, especially when it came to reporting on such a volatile issue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was quick to respond to these reports, saying she understood the investigation into the attacks was in its early stages.

“New Zealand has not yet seen any intelligence upon which such an assessment might be based.”

In a press conference on Wednesday, she reiterated the remarks came from a junior minister, and she had not seen any evidence to support them. She also continued to advocate for unity against any form of extreme violence and terrorism.

"But the basic requirement is verification. Do not publish anything you cannot independently verify.”

This reporting again raises media’s role and burden of responsibility when reporting on terror events – something that’s been a topic of much discussion in New Zealand since the Christchurch attacks. It's an area where domestic media is still finding its feet, but news organisations have been proactive in creating internal policies, and working together to come up with reporting guidelines ahead of the shooter's trial.

Ellis said New Zealand media did a good job at balancing the claim with the context in its coverage of the retaliation angle. With a fast-moving situation, or evolving news story, like a terror attack, it was important not to over-egg these types of claims.

“I think it behoves the media to act with a degree of greater responsibility than that,” he said.

Going forward, media outlets needed to apply constant editorial judgment when covering terror attacks, and related developments.

Ellis was loath to say there was a single template when it came to making editorial decisions.

“But the basic requirement is verification. Do not publish anything you cannot independently verify.”

If media did publish unverified claims, that needed to be made clear at the top of the story.

According to Ellis, a more fitting headline would have looked something like: ‘Junior Sri Lankan minister makes unsubstantiated claims the attacks were retaliation’.

Playing into the hands of terror

Along with the issues of prominently reporting unverified claims, there’s the knock-on effect of sending signals of a dangerous tit-for-tat terror war.

“It plants in the minds of others some sort of legitimacy in retribution and of course, there’s none,” Ellis said

“It changes the character of the events and turns them into a clash of civilisations.”

Since the minister’s comments surfaced, security and terrorism experts, including reporters like the New York Times' reporter Rukmini Callimachi, have expressed scepticism at whether an attack of this magnitude and sophistication could have been organised in the weeks since the March 15 attack.

Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies teaching fellow John Battersby said he expected the planning and logistics for the Sri Lankan attacks were already in train prior to the Christchurch attack, however, the Christchurch attacks may have provided impetus to individuals or groups already determined on some terrorist act.

“As soon as the Sri Lankan news broke I wondered immediately if Christchurch featured somewhere in the calculation of the perpetrators,” he said.

On the other hand, it could all be a red-herring, “so I am allowing the possibility but will need confirmation with hard evidence”.

"Sri Lanka, Europe, Africa….it doesn’t matter where they strike, they know that wherever they do, they will get a global audience."

Battersby reiterated, like other commentators, he was sceptical about the whole attack plan and sequence being put together solely as a result of Christchurch, just as he was not convinced that Sri Lanka’s National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) fully planned and executed this without some serious outside assistance.

In times like these, it was important not to rush to judgment, and instead see what the intelligence actually said.

Likewise, when unpicking whether ISIS was behind the attack, as it unsurprisingly claimed.

This was the nuance and context missing from the initial reporting.

Terror groups, and individual terrorists inspired by others like ISIS, also rely on media coverage of their actions, in what’s become a type of ratings war.

This was apparent in the Christchurch shooting, with the livestreaming of the attack, and the messages contained in his published manifesto.

It was important media thought carefully about how to cover before playing into that plan for exposure of ideas and ambitions, and again, exercise the editorial judgment Ellis referred to.

Battersby said terrorism was now genuinely global, “where non-state actors are using the entire globe as a theatre to perpetrate their terror”.

“Sri Lanka, Europe, Africa ... it doesn’t matter where they strike, they know that wherever they do it, they will get a global audience…

“Extremist individuals or factions, on absolute fringes of our societies responding to each other’s provocations, by carrying out attacks on unsuspecting people at their most vulnerable times is a hideous and alarming feature of 21st Century globalised terrorism. Nations need to seriously get their heads together and confront this global risk, with a coordinated and integrated response.”

At a time like this, responsible, measured, and verified coverage is crucial.

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