Why are Western deaths more valuable? Journalism ethics in covering terrorist attacks

Autora: Maria Garrido (@mariagarridos)

Terrorist attacks have been increasing during the last years in Europe; in fact, during the period of 2016-2017 there was an average of one attack each month. We are living in a wave of terror provoked by the recent massacres such as the attack in Bataclan (Paris) on November 2015 or even closer, the one in La Rambla, Barcelona, last summer, when 16 people died.

The relevant question here is: What is the role of the media in covering terrorist attacks? It is essential for our democracy that journalists work well. This includes not entering the game of the terrorists and not producing “free advertisement” for them. When I say free advertisement I mean that, for example, when Daesh publishes a new video on their YouTube channel decapitating western journalists, our work is to inform but not to reproduce those kind of videos hundreds of times because this is what they want.

Moreover, we are bombarded by the media with news and information about terrorist attacks that happen in Europe, whereas they misinform us about the situation in Asia or Africa. A revealing example is the day after the Bataclan attack in Paris, where 153 people died. Here we can see some French newspapers front pages dedicated completely to the tragedy and with titles such as L’HORREUR (Horror), CARNAGES A PARIS (Carnage in Paris), LA GUERRE EN PLEIN PARIS (The war in Paris) … Not only French media made this, but several European media made a lot of noise about what had happened.

Why don’t we report in the same way about the attacks that happen in the East? The article 10 of International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism (UNESCO) focuses on the promotion of a new world information and communication orders. According to this principle, the European citizens may be informed equally about terrorist attacks here and all parts of the world.

To some extent it is normal to receive more information about European tragedies because we are more interested in what happens around us. This is known as a geographical factor: we are all more impacted by the tragedies that affect people who live close to us and have a culture similar to ours. Nonetheless, it is not acceptable to publish hundreds of newspapers front pages with these attacks and do not even explain that, for example, in the Arabic peninsula there is a “Bataclan attack” every week. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists alert that “malicious misrepresentation” is a professional offence that should be avoided.

After this general debate about ethics, is interesting to analyze the professional ethics used by journalists in reporting this kind of news. First of all, we should examine the front pages about Bataclan and La Rambla attacks with their titles and photos.

We can see the ABC newspaper front page about the Bataclan Daesh attack (November 2015). They chose a sensationalist photograph featuring a young man who was a victim of the attack, naked and hurt. Furthermore, the title MATANZA EN PARIS (Killing in Paris) left a bitter aftertaste of sensationalism without information. According to the article 4 of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics, journalists should “treat all the subjects with respect and dignity”. As the NPAA advocates: “Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and have compassion for victims of crimes or tragedies. Interfere in moments of private mourning only when the public has a justifiable need to be a witness”.  Conversely, there is the cover of ARA of the day after the Rambla attack. They didn’t use images to respect the victims, and they also chose “Sense por” (Without fear) as a title, a powerful message to the terrorists to show them that people are not based on the hate like them.

Another controversial question about the La Rambla attack was the treatment about Julian Cadman, the seven-year-old Australian boy. The boy was with his Australian mother on La Rambla in Barcelona at the time of the attack. The mother suffered injuries and was hospitalized, but the child disappeared the first 2-3 days. Nobody knew anything and the authorities were looking if he was in a hospital and did not want anything to be published.

Even so, many media such as Público, decided to publish the photograph of the child because the parents explained what had happened in their social networks. It is clear that journalists have a social function, but this is a very sensitive issue and they should have waited for more information from the authorities, because everyone believed he was missing when he had actually died in a hospital hours after the attack.

In the article 2.1. of the Recommendations on the coverage of terrorist acts by the Catalan Audiovisual Council (CAC) it is explained: “In terrorist acts, the identity of the victims can only be disseminated once it is facilitated, officially, by the authorities, who, in turn, can only provide the identity after informing the relatives. In any case, it is necessary to avoid that the relatives of the victims find out about it through the media”.

To finish with this overview about journalism ethics in terrorism attacks, another element should be highlighted. Most of the examined media abandoned the coverage of the problem after the attack, especially the one in Barcelona. This goes against the Ethics Code of Journalists of Catalonia, which in the article 8 of annex 5 states: “Do not abandon the coverage after the high point of the resolution, reconstruct it and reconcile it”. In the case of Spain, it is clear that the attack was eclipsed by the Catalan Independence theme. It is necessary for our democracy that citizens know that terrorist attacks have not finished yet. They are still a central problem in many territories across the globe.