Sensationalism costs lives

IRA SHOOTS COP DEAD, Officer lured into ambush in new terror outrage, ran today’s Mirror front page headline. The headline in yesterday’s Sun was EXECUTED BY IRA COWARDS, and the byline: TERROR RETURNS TO ULSTER. It is not just journalists that have dramatised the two murder attacks in recent days. On the front page of today’s Times, SDLP member Dolores Kelly says, “We are staring into the abyss”.

The way in which journalists report a conflict affects the conflict being covered. Unlike journalists in the Middle East, those in Northern Ireland have long followed the motto, ‘sensationalism costs lives’. Over the past two decades they have not reported every incident as a major setback, as a failure of the political process, or as the personal fault of duplicitous politicians (studies by Gadi Wolfsfeld demonstrate this). Sensationalist coverage may bring a short term boost to a newspaper’s readership, but it brings long term harm to a community, creating the very ‘climate of fear’ that the terrorists often seek. When journalists live in that community and have to face readers in the street, they are more easily held accountable for irresponsible reporting. Hence it is perhaps no surprise that it is the mainland press that appears more sensationalist than, say, the Belfast Telegraph, which broke the story as, Soldiers shot dead in Northern Ireland terror attack.

The director general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, said in January that intelligence suggested there were ‘splinter groups who are determined to kill a member of the security services or a police officer in Northern Ireland’. Killing a single person is symbolic. Now we have seen two attacks, three state security personnel dead, and fears of copycat killings. In such a tipping point moment, is it not the responsibility of journalists to ensure any climate of fear is reduced, even if it means censoring their own reporting? It is the classic dilemma of giving terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’, as Thatcher put it. There are recent precedents. Lately, journalists have had to grapple with whether to report on jihadist kidnap videos: report them, and the kidnappers get a public platform; ignore them, and the kidnapper might as well kill the victim since they have no publicity value. However, it may be that audiences find such videos to be distasteful and hard to watch. It is easier for editors to ignore them. But the ‘return of the troubles’ seems a historically important story and impossible to ignore. Finding a balance that doesn’t contribute to bringing that return about will be tricky.