We Need to Talk About How We Cover Terrorism

Reporting attacks like those in Buffalo and Texas requires treading a delicate line between describing the mayhem and glorifying the killer

We Need to Talk About How We Cover Terrorism
Shannon Waedell-Collins pays her respects to the victims of the 2022 shooting in Buffalo, NY / Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Last weekend, I got a call from a friend seeking advice. Her friend had written an article on the Buffalo shooter and his ideology, and she was wondering about the wisdom of addressing the toxic ideas head on. She wondered: Was it playing into the extremist’s hands to amplify his message this way? 

This was the view taken by the New Zealand media in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch mass slaying, when a white supremacist killed 51 Muslims in two mosques and injured 50 more. This attack sent shockwaves through New Zealand society, but reporters had to jump into action despite the cognitive dissonance and shock they were feeling. Journalists all over the country—along with many government agencies—discovered that they’d been sent the manifesto of the shooter hours before, but it had been filtered into spam folders. The livestream was not so easily avoided: Despite the gruesome spectacle and an early decision by Facebook to take it down, social media algorithms actually pushed it to people interested in politics and news. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke of it crossing her own newsfeed.

When journalists began poring over the hate-filled content of both the manifesto and video, the shock turned to horror, and the question of how to report the atrocity became urgent. Although they were scrambling to come to terms with what had happened, there was astonishing agreement across the media sector, their audience and advertisers alike. Of course the population had to be informed as to what happened, but knowing that part of the motivation of such attacks is looking for glory and notoriety, all Kiwi outlets moved to deny the shooter attention as much as possible, a move followed by Ardern: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name,” she said in the days following the attack. Patrick Crewdson, editor in chief of New Zealand’s biggest news consortium, Stuff, explained that to give terrorists such attention “not only validates their aims but can also have a risk of glamorizing them, to the extent that other people want to imitate them.” Kamala Hayman, editor of a Christchurch local paper, The Press, echoed this point of view: “It’s really the importance of not creating heroes for those subcultures.”

But thanks to the internet and the freedom of discussion boards like 4chan as well as social media platforms like Discord that champion freedom of speech, these terrorists do become heroes, seen in chatrooms and in the diatribes they produce. Despite all the efforts of the New Zealand media to elide all detail about him, the Christchurch shooter was cited in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto as his main inspiration. And we know so, because unlike in New Zealand, the media reporting on this most recent far-right atrocity in America has been forensic in its attention to the ideology behind the attack. New Lines published a piece last week elucidating the information ecosystem that enables such an ideology, an ecosystem not hidden away on 4chan but spread across the left and right media, echoed by prominent media figures. 

I feel that it is important we are aware of these links that enable, amplify and in some cases mainstream virulent hatred and extreme violence. I also sense that there’s a segment of the population who really do not understand the level of racism, misogyny and other deep fears and hatreds in our societies or how prevalent they are becoming. For the past year, I have been regularly reading posts from a variety of manosphere and far-right discussion forums as part of a research project on online extremism with the University of Cambridge’s Computer Lab. This work has many unpleasant aspects, but perhaps the most unsettling is not the hatred I read in the chatrooms themselves but the echoes of it I hear when I switch on the news. The misogyny I have consumed in these subcultures is expressed by politicians in so-called liberal democracies as well as seen in the backgrounds of least 80% of the mass shooters in America. Antisemitic tropes that go back centuries resurface on politicians’ social media sites and in their words. And the “great replacement theory” is presented as fact on the most-watched news-related program in America. All these ideologies are insidiously gaining ground, with one or more of them leading to the ideologically motivated violence so tragically seen in Buffalo and Christchurch as well as many other places around the world, including fueling the mass shootings of children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012 and Uvalde, Texas, just this week.

Reporting on terrorism is always going to be a series of tricky balancing acts: informing the public versus amplifying the message (a key aim of terrorism), honoring the victims versus understanding the perpetrators. Paul Thompson, chief editor of public broadcaster Radio New Zealand, described his attitude at the time. “This was really about not being played. [The killer’s] point of livestreaming it was to make it not just about the tragic death of people in a far corner of the world but to make it a global event and to amplify it. I’d think as an editor you’d see through that.” This is a laudable approach, and there is no doubt that the media played a large role in how New Zealand healed after the Christchurch shooting. But New Zealand is a very different society; serving a national population of only around 5 million, editors are directly answerable to their family and neighbors, and everyone, including journalists, experiences such an atrocity as a citizen. In an American context, the media is not so responsible, and this is part of the problem with extremism. And so, despite my admiration for how New Zealand responded, I could answer my friend’s appeal for advice without hesitation. It is the right thing to do to analyze the Buffalo attacker’s material. The mainstream needs to be called out in its subservience to the toxic elements undoubtedly on the rise, and the public needs to understand how these ideologies are gaining ground. Buffalo will not be the last deadly far-right attack, and we need to understand why. 

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