Should the media show photos of terror attackers?

Effective reporting requires attentiveness. The French newspaper “Le Monde” is therefore trying to change its reporting practices. Police communications expert Robert Kahr discusses terrorism and the media.
Deutschland Polizeikräfte nach dem Amoklauf in München

DW: The French newspaper “Le Monde” wants to make a significant change to its terrorism reporting, and in the future withhold details like photos or perpetrators’ resumes. Can that prevent copycat killers?

Robert Kahr: No, it cannot. There is already a large pool of existing source material from the wide range of reporting on previous attacks. Perpetrators will always be able to draw on this information for their preparations [of future attacks].

Is the initiative from Le Monde all for nothing then?

To answer this question I would like to differentiate between politically motivated terrorism and lone attackers.

For people who are carrying out an attack on their own initiative and who are suffering from extreme psychological distress, who work themselves into a criminal state and carry out their fantasies, campaigns like Le Monde’s send the message that if you want to act like [previous attackers], you will be denied the fame and publicity. That can be a very constructive aspect.

Then there is politically motivated terrorism. That cannot really be stopped by less reporting; it’s more about hindering the success of their message. Terrorism is also a communications strategy. That means I do something really bad to try to draw attention to myself and then send a message. The moment it becomes clear, however, that this strategy will no longer be successful, the prospect for success for such an act is significantly lowered.

Does reporting about terror attacks need to be completely changed?
Deutschland Der Kommunikationswissenschaftler Robert Kahr

Police communications expert Robert Kahr: Terrorism reporting should be reconsidered

That is not really possible. There is a lot of scientific research about this. Obviously, you have to talk about the act itself. There will be people hurt and killed. Our security apparatus will be affected. It is very important to talk about and report it so that people can form an opinion. But the way in which to talk about it is something that can be worked on intensively, and that is what Le Monde has chosen to do by withholding pictures of terrorists and terrorist propaganda material.

Do you think that German media should follow Le Monde’s example?

I think it is important to at least discuss it and weigh it carefully. Obviously, France has seen an entirely different level of terrorism in comparison to Germany. That means they are having a much more profound discussion. But it would be good if here in Germany, we thought more about how much we are supporting terrorist thinking, or allowing them to generate attention.

Do live broadcasts about attacks, which often contain a lot of speculation, also need to be scaled back?

Unfortunately, during ongoing events it leads to [reporting] false crime scenes. That creates false attackers and a massive public scare, which can cause psychological damage to people. The spreading of rumors is highly problematic.

When during their live coverage, the media share rumours or videos from unknown sources being spread on social media, for example, they generate publicity on a very different level. Communication from the police is also required.

What should the information policy of the police look like in the future?

The police should and must communicate proactively in such crisis situations. We have to ensure calm and reliability with regard to the flow of information. The police, of course, can share information when it is reliable. But it must be done quickly and with very clear announcements. People desire transparency and reliability. That’s why a lot of police departments have Facebook accounts, for example. There are more and more strategies for having a dialog with the press and citizens. We understand that good police work cannot be done without good communication.

To what extent has terrorism reporting done more harm than good?

That cannot really be a question in a free and democratic society. Obviously, it has to be reported – regardless of the question of whether it does harm or good.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of approaches the media can take to report in a better way and more constructively. In that respect, Le Monde’s decision is a welcome one. The reports should be less about the perpetrator and focus more on the people who suffered from terrorist attacks, who lost relatives or were injured themselves. Those are the ones to whom we owe our attention.

Robert Kahr is a communications expert at the Münster police academy. He worked together with his colleague Frank Robertz for three years on the book: “The Media Presentation of Chaos and Terrorism