Common people around the world expect well-known Western news organisations to provide them with objective and balanced reporting of events by providing facts, data, and information. This expectation is underpinned by the fact that journalistic ethics are taught in their early careers.
The ethics of covering terrorist attacks has been long debated. Given that violent terrorist acts provide many facets that attract media coverage, such as negativity, controversy, uncommonness, conflict, sensationalism, and impact, experts believe that the media have a key role in countering violence.
The Oxygen of Terrorism
The later British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once stated that media coverage is the “oxygen of terrorism”. Therefore, journalists need to should apply necessary caution not to give terrorists what they crave and grasp the criticality of community psychology. Since terror aims to spread fear via violence, reporting such acts will have more impact than routine news. As such, journalists are expected to exercise more caution not to become a conduit for terrorists while reporting their actions.
Besides providing information, it is essential to mention the victims with respect, emphasise empathy with their families, and reveal terrorism for what it is while refraining from romanticising the perpetrators and avoiding sensitive images that may cause discomfort for their families.
The 2022 Taksim Terror Attack
The recent terrorist attack, which took place in Taksim Square, Istanbul, has again opened discussions about media bias.
On November 13, 2022, a deadly bomb attack left six people dead and at least 80 people injured severely. The attack has been confirmed by Turkish authorities as a terror attack carried out by PKK/PYD. In his statement, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, said, “We assess that the order came from Kobani. Early findings show the PKK/PYD is behind the attack.”
While the terror attack was mentioned by international news outlets immediately, with the ensuing condolences from world leaders, there was one particular report by the New York Times (NYT) which created a vast controversy and caused fury in Türkiye.
An Insensitive Coverage
The NYT’s post on social media reads as follows: “Of the tens of millions of tourists from around the world who visit Turkey each year, many spend time in the area where Sunday’s bombing took place.”
The tweet caused viral reactions with 444 retweets, 5,643 quoted retweets and 1,787 likes. Many people stated that the tweet was disrespectful, dehumanising, and embarrassing, and Turkish media, such as Daily Sabah and Anadolu Agency, followed suit. It was also seen as a contradiction to the NYT editorial policy. The NYT’s mission is said to be “merely applying that purpose with common sense will point to the ethical course. We help a global audience understand a vast and diverse world. To do that fully and fairly, we treat our subjects, our readers and each other with empathy and respect.”
The report, titled “Blast in Central Istanbul Kills at Least 6 and Wounds Dozens” preferred to focus on the location of the terror attack, referring to it as a tourist destination and how it will affect Türkiye’s economy, rather than reporting the human dimension and the terrible loss of life that ensued.
The report focused on the visitors and how they fled quickly to the popular spot.Then, the report stated: “Of the tens of millions of tourists from around the world who visit Turkey each year, many spend time in the area where the bombing took place.” This over-emphasis on tourists while ignoring the plight of the victims is problematic.
People worldwide were enraged at the report, saying, “Would/could you report the September 11 attacks like this?” and “Have some respect and delete this news now.”
Reading the Subtext
It is clear that the NYT’s editors see Türkiye merely as a tourist destination rather than a country where millions of people live, and that they are the first to be affected. The following text reveals such an odd framing: “It happened down the iconic Istiklal Avenue, a pedestrian thoroughfare traversed by a tram and lined with elegant, historic buildings, shops, restaurants, and vendors hawking roasted chestnuts and Turkish ice cream. The area is crowded day and night as visitors from Turkey and abroad stroll and explore the back streets, which are packed with bars and cafes.” This text also frames the attack outside of any humane perspective. One wonders what NYT’s aim behind such coverage is. Their emphasis on the location being an “unsafe touristic destination” while indicating that tourism is an essential contributor to Türkiye’s economy seems to justify the choice of Taksim Square as a target for terror acts.
The subsequent wording further illustrates the point: “Like many parts of Turkey whose economies thrive on tourism, the area around Istiklal has suffered in recent years as travel restrictions and fears of infection during the coronavirus pandemic kept many tourists away. The situation appeared to be returning to normal this summer, as the pandemic waned, and the weak Turkish lira made Turkey an attractive budget destination. Sunday’s bombing threatened to dent that recovery.”
This approach raises eyebrows, especially when it is compared to previous reports on other attacks in Western countries covered by the NYT. For instance, the deadly Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack that occurred in Paris in 2015 was labelled as irrational and random. Nowhere did the NYT mention that these attacks occurred near tourist places. The news outlet mentioned tourists but in the way of caution regarding their lives, not the economic effects on the country. On the other hand, the focus was on victims, national security and the measures taken as they should be.
All in all, the NYT covered the terrorist attack in Türkiye with an insensitive approach that has not been shown in any terrorist attack before, dehumanising the victims and reducing the whole atrocity to tourism. Such a stance both contradicts the newspaper’s own editorial policy and means that the NYT failed to provide coverage that reflects high journalistic standards based on human dignity and principles of media ethics. Worse still, it seems that NYT’s editors have double standards: A set of rules are applied for “worthy” victims while others are deployed for “unworthy” victims.