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Why media needs a counter-terrorism forum

By Anthony Bergin

In a huge breaking news story like the Pulse nightclub Orlando shooting it’s hardly surprisingly that not all media stuck with what was known and stayed away from rumours.

NPR, a non-profit US media organisation, however, adopted a different strategy.

In the midst of the Orlando shooting, it recognised that there were risks in speed.

It placed a rather unusual editor’s disclaimer at the bottom of breaking news about what turned out to the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history.

NPR admitted that it sometimes reported inaccurate information: ‘This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops’.

Not many news sources were so trusting of their audience as to point out a lot of early information from Orlando was based on shaky ground.

Media outlets were quick to wheel in experts and politicians, with lots of blame going around: lax gun controls; all Muslims were terrorists; the intelligence difficulty of finding lone wolf actors; and homophobia. Many commentators insisted on placing these factors in separate causal boxes.

But would our media get it right here if it faced a fast breaking mass casualty event? Or would we see rampant misreporting, where the details on the ground would no doubt be contradictory?

There’s some basis for optimism that our media would apply appropriate scrutiny to the information it encountered.

On 15 December 2014 The Daily Telegraph produced a special lunchtime edition that featured the front-page headline: ‘Death Cult CBD Attack: IS takes 13 hostages in city cafe siege’.

The edition generated complaints to the Australian Press Council. The complaints centred on the claim that Monis was a terrorist associated with Islamic State and that these claims may have caused distress to readers, particularly those who knew the hostages, without sufficient public interest.

The Press Council decided not to pursue the matter. It acknowledged the report relied on information from ‘multiple, senior sources’ that were ‘confirmed by police information from subsequent inquiries.’

The Council took into account that the article was ‘reporting on an event in which circumstances were uncertain and fast moving.’

The official Commonwealth and NSW Review into the Sydney Martin Place siege praised the media for a job well done during the rolling coverage of the 16-hour siege. It found the media’s live coverage of this major news story was measured and responsible.

But despite the good job the media did in the Sydney siege it’s still hard to know how press coverage would play out in the immediate aftermath of a mass casualty attack here.

That’s why we should establish a counter-terrorism and media forum to enhance confidence between our security agencies and the media by raising awareness of each other’s responsibilities and identifying ways to improve communication.

Possible subject areas might include media coverage of terrorist incidents like we’ve seen in Paris, Brussels and now Orlando, protective security arrangements for journalists conducting local terrorism reporting, a potential role for the media in counter-terrorism exercises, the protection of operational details of police counter-terrorism operations, and the media’s investigations of social media accounts being used by extremists.

A forum might sponsor training seminars designed to increase technical skills and consider new anti-terrorism legislation that impacts on media activity.

It might consider how journalism schools best prepare students with the practical training to cover terrorism acts.

We don’t a need for a specific media code covering terrorism. Current reporting guidelines and existing codes should be drawn upon.

There’s no need either to establish a formal accreditation system for terrorism reporting, as operates for special events where there’s security reasons for limiting access to journalists. Wider accreditation for terrorism reporting isn’t practical: it’s not just specialist reporters that cover terrorism.

The type of individual jihad operation we saw in Orlando, Florida represents the new normal of terrorist attacks in the West.

Since September 2014, when our terror alert level was first raised to ‘probable’, (a terror attack is likely), Australia has experienced three attacks and nine disrupted plots. Sadly, it’s a safe bet that our media will be covering another homegrown attack.

The federal Attorney-General’s Department has responsibility for the national security public information guidelines. They should convene a forum bringing together media representatives and our key security and law enforcement agencies.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published: The Australian. 20 June 2016

Originally published by: The Australian on 20 Jun 2016