Femke van Zeijl: A Journalist’s checklist in times of terror

Do not publish about bomb scares. We do not publish about false fire alarms or almost accidents either.

I have been criticised on Twitter about not saying much on Boko Haram. I have explained that Boko Haram gets enough free air time as it is. Moreover at the moment I don’t feel I have anything new to add to the discussion on Boko Haram.

I have something to say though about the media in times of terror, when journalism becomes a life or death issue. I did so on my Twitter page @femkevanzeijl under the hashtag #terrorandmedia. This is a recap of that Twitter conversation. 

There are 3 questions a journalist covering terrorism should ask himself. Let me call it ‘A Journalist’s Checklist in Times of Terror’:

#1 Am I being used as a tool of terror?

#2 Am I adding to the fear?

#3 Am I becoming a party in the conflict?

 All things a journalist should try to avoid at all times. Not an easy task. Who ever said is was an easy job? Some rules of thumb might make the job easier though. ’10 Rules of Media Etiquette in Times of Terror’, if you will:

#1 Know the stakes and agenda of the parties in the conflict to understand why messages are conveyed to the media.

#2 Decide case by case if a message’s newsworthy enough to outweigh the effect of your media helping sender fulfil his agenda.

#3 Putting news in perspective to a confused and scared audience is more important than reporting on yet another explosion.

#4 Perspective is not yet another opinion piece. Well researched social/economic background stories serve purpose better.

#5 Do not publish hit lists. It is the easiest way for anyone to get attention.

#6 Do not publish about bomb scares. We do not publish about false fire alarms or almost accidents either.

#7 Don’t let your media’s agenda be ruled by terror. There is ALWAYS other news worth covering. It balances the image.

#8 Write under general bylines (‘from our reporter’). Share professional responsibility and lessen the risk for individuals.

#9 In breaking news, don’t let your emotions shine through using derogatory words. It’s up to reader/listener/viewer to judge.

#10 Stick to the facts, stick to the facts, stick to the facts. 

Let me elaborate a bit on these ‘Rules of Etiquette’ before I round off. I speak of ‘parties’ in the conflict. Plural. Politicians and NGOs have an agenda in times of terror too. All need scrutiny. You’d be surprised how often decision #2 will turn out negative: not newsworthy enough to justify granting free airtime. One might object to #6, saying hit lists will get published online anyway. It’s the media’s responsibility however to argue against it and explain why. I would like to put the emphasis on #10. Hearsay, innuendo and half-truths are deadly to journalism in general. In times of terror they are deadly.

A Nigerian media-wide debate on the issue wouldn’t be a bad idea. Professionalism is something to hold on to in times of crisis. People panic when violence erupts, but if you have discussed how to act beforehand, chances are you will act more responsibly.

So far my opinions as a media professional – both checklist and etiquette rules – are open to discussion.

 Consider yourself invited.


Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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One comment

  1. Really lovely article.

cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail