Little hard evidence about effect of media coverage on aspiring jihadists

Recent attacks have sparked media debate in France on the ethics of coverage

At least seven major media outlets in France have said they will no longer publish images of terrorist attackers.

The Bastille Day massacre of 84 people in Nice and the murder of a priest in a small town in Normandy this week have prompted a debate in French media regarding coverage of jihadist attacks.

At least seven media outlets (BFMTV, Europe 1 radio, La Croix and Le Monde newspapers and France Médias Monde, which includes RFI, France 24 and Monte Carlo Doualiya) have announced they will no longer publish images of attackers.

Europe 1 goes further, refusing to name the killers, while La Croix will publish only the first name and first initial of the last name.

The reason most cited, in the words of Le Monde's director Jérôme Fenoglio, is "to avoid possible posthumous glorification" of the extremists.


Le Monde months ago stopped publishing images from propaganda videos or documents originating with Islamic State, which is also known as Isis.

By contrast, Le Figaro and Libération newspapers on Thursday published editorials justifying their decision to continue to publish the names and biographies of suicide attackers, and photographs of them.

The debate was fuelled by questionable television coverage on the night of July 14th. BFMTV and LCI showed footage of the lorry mowing down pedestrians, and bodies on the ground.

France 2 broadcast the same video, and an interview with a man next to his wife's dead body. The parent company, France Télévisions, later apologised.

The conservative member of the National Assembly, Hervé Mariton, was so outraged that he obtained signatures of 41 elected officials on a petition demanding that France 2 be punished by the high audiovisual council (CSA). Mariton also targeted TF1 for broadcasting "mocking selfies" of the lorry driver, which the petition calls "a form of glorification".

The secretary of state responsible for helping victims, Juliette Méadel, on Thursday founded a group to study media coverage of the attacks and offer proposals in September. "It is up to the journalists, in the framework of their ethics, to adopt the right rules," Méadel told Metronews.

There is much conjecture, but little hard evidence about the effect of media coverage on aspiring jihadists. Psychiatrists, anthropologists and sociologists have been widely quoted in the campaign to deprive extremists of “publicity”.

But as Alexis Brézet, director of Le Figaro, points out, "In Syria and Iraq, their faces don't appear in newspapers: they nonetheless massacre Christians, Shia and Yazidis there."

Brézet also warns of the “Orwellian trap” of erasing “bad guys” from history.

The Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama, a professor of psychopathology at the University of Paris, told Le Monde that "those who commit these acts want to be known and recognised. They expect global glory, the bloodier the greater."

Benslama has proposed a pact committing media and users of social networks not to publish photographs, biographies or the names of jihadists, to “limit the reach of their self-glorification.” He says we must be aware that for fragile minds, “becoming famous for several days is worth a massacre”.

Others argue that too much concentration on the perpetrators risks putting terrorists on the same level as victims, or creating a climate of terror.

"Does anyone seriously believe that depriving terrorists of images will slow them down, make them more moderate or dissuade them?" Laurent Joffrin, director of Libération, asked. "Let's be realistic: a photo published or withdrawn will change nothing of (the terrorists') strategy."

Furthermore, Joffrin argues, the freedom to inform is an integral part of democracy. To limit it “would be a concession to terrorism.”

David Thomson, a journalist at Radio France Internationale and a leading expert on French and Tunisian jihadists, points out that "jihadists don't need mass media to exist. They have their own press agencies, their own production units, and broadcast on the internet."

The jihadists also have their own process for manufacturing “heros,” Thomson notes. He maintains that “broadcasting names or profiles of terrorists has no effect on the rhythm of attacks, while not publishing them fosters conspiracy theories.”

In the US, similar arguments have surfaced against focusing on the perpetrators of mass killings. In January 2015, Caren and Tom Teves, whose son Alex was killed in an attack in a Colorado cinema in 2012, launched "No Notoriety", to campaign for "responsible"media coverage of gunmen.

Following their son’s death, it was painful for the Teveses to be constantly confronted with the face of his killer. They do not demand that shooters’ identity be wiped from the record, but that coverage be more proportionate. “Limit the name and likeness of the individual,” their website says.

Several US media have done so.

When Omar Mateen murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub last month, FBI director James Comey said, "You will notice that I am not using the killer's name . . . Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory."