Reporting breaking news of a crime can be tricky, as journalists try to get the most information out to the public as quickly as possible. But in that rush, when and how should media start implying the motive for the crime? For instance, should media speculate that it might be an act of “terrorism,” and if so, how?
Below we look at how two different media outlets introduce the possibility that Tuesday’s incident could be an act of terror, from the most slanted to the most responsible. Note, these are from articles captured at 5:30 pm Eastern, less than two and a half hours after the attack, and prior to any official statement about “terrorism.”
“Terrorism Suspected After Truck Driver Kills Eight in Lower Manhattan”
This is NBC’s headline. As the first thing people read, it colors all the information that follows. Even if the suspect is later found to have other reasons for attacking, such as psychological issues or another motive, it could still promote fears of “terrorism.”
An anonymous police official “said the attack was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism.”
Of the outlets we analyzed, AP presents the possibility of terrorism in the most responsible way. It only provides the above line, and doesn’t emphasize it repeatedly. It is also in the body of the article, not the headline.
Risks of rushed reporting
There are specific pitfalls journalists could take care to avoid when reporting breaking news, from inaccuracies to biasing the public dialogue on an issue. As we might remember from the initial reporting of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, many news organizations initially reported incorrect information – like calling the suspect by his brother’s name and incorrectly stating that his mother worked at and was killed at the school.
But even when breaking news reporting doesn’t contain factual inaccuracies, as with Sandy Hook, it still can promote premature implications that may encourage fear. For instance, in the case of Tuesday’s attack, reporting that implies that it was terrorism before any official investigations have concluded could bias the public towards this conclusion. In turn, it could encourage public fears about “terrorism” being a major threat, influence the government to treat the attack as “terrorism,” or even encourage public officials to favor policies aimed at preventing “terrorism” over efforts to prevent all violent crimes. (See Context section for statistics on the prevalence of “terrorism” compared to other crimes.)
Maybe it was ‘terrorism’
It may actually have been, but would we know only a couple of hours after the incident? The crime of “terrorism” has to do with using violence or fear to further a political agenda (see more in the Context section). At the time, all the media had to go on was what the suspect looked like, and a witness account that he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great in Arabic). Is that enough to know his motivation? Probably not. That would require investigation.
Would media have implied this was terrorism if the suspect looked different? As others have written, media seems to apply the label “terrorism” quickly to people who fit a certain stereotype: people who lookMiddle Eastern or Muslim, or speak Arabic. (For example, most media outlets didn’t refer to the Las Vegas mass shooting by a white American as terrorism.) Assuming we know someone’s motive just because of the way they look can promote prejudice.
So should media stay out of it?
This isn’t to say that there was factually inaccurate information in the coverage of Tuesday’s incident in New York. But it would be more responsible for media to minimize speculation, acknowledge limitations in data, and not rush to judgments – especially those that might promote prejudice or a societal fear of certain groups, when reported without context.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News