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For AFP reporter Sara Hussein, time is the greatest challenge when it comes to covering stories of terror and conflict. Sometimes, working to tight deadlines means she cannot do the story justice.

“I've had several cases where my constraints, whether in terms of words or time made me long for the chance to spend longer on a story,” says Hussein, who is also a mentor with The Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network (MCJN).

One such example was when she covered the battles in West Mosul.

I came across Iraqi security forces carrying out a mass screening of men who had come out of the city, trying to detect whether any IS sympathisers or members were among them. I was able to stay and watch the first part of the screening but I would have liked in an ideal world to follow up on the process, see where the men were taken, see how they were treated, what judicial process if any they were put through”.

MCJN member Mai Shams el Din, a freelance journalist based in Cairo, says that terrorism stories are the most difficult to cover. “Of course you are short on time and getting information is extremely difficult. People are too afraid to talk and are suspicious of the media, and the government is reluctant to release information”.

“In 2015 the government was discussing anti-terrorism legislation that stipulated that journalists would be arrested for producing "false reporting" on terror attacks , this has now been reduced to a fine, but a large one of up to one million pounds, which of course affects how journalists report on attacks".

"Official sources would not comment publicly, as we saw during the October 2017 attack in the western desert, in which 52 policemen were killed. The government tried to hide the casualty figures. Then it accused the BBC and Reuters of “inaccurate reporting” by relying on “anonymous sources”. This lack of information, and the government’s aggressive response, make it really difficult to cover those stories”.

“Of course you are short on time and getting information is extremely difficult. People are too afraid to talk and are suspicious of the media, and the government is reluctant to release information”.

With terror attacks and armed conflict dominating the headlines in the MENA region, let alone the rest of the world, the media’s handling of those stories becomes a topic for debate too. Reporting on a terror incident in the proper or larger context, or finding a way to tell a story without giving a free platform for terrorists are urgent questions, and not all media will address them in the same manner.

For example, after the attack in July 2016 on a church in the French town of Rouen, where an 84-year old priest was killed, a number of French news organisations said they will no longer publish photos of people responsible for terrorist killings to avoid bestowing “posthumous glorification”. In an editorial after the attack, Le Monde argued that all elements of society had to be involved in the struggle against terrorism, and that media organisations had a special role to play.

Sara Hussein feels that, because of this awareness, there has been a shift in the way media covers attacks “I think mainstream media outlets nowadays are a lot more careful and take more time to ensure they get the story right, which is as it should be.”

“In terms of things to avoid, I think we should tread a careful line when covering claims of attack, no need to extensively quote extremist groups or engaged in fearmongering or lionisation.”

Mai thinks there limitations to the way foreign media covers terror attacks. “There is never enough aftermath coverage in foreign outlets as they often dismiss these stories as being too local. But I think very often they are more important than the attacks themselves, and there are constant developments in places like Egypt where there are new groups cropping up all the time and foreign media tends to ignore this.”

A study released in 2015 revealed that media attention devoted to a terrorist attack was predictive of both the “likelihood of another strike in the affected country within seven days’ time and of a reduced interval until the next attack”.

The study, which was entitled " Blowing things up: The effects of media attention on terrorism," based its findings on analysing more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 as reported by the New York Times. Economics professor Michael Jetter of the University of Western Australia in Perth notes that over the past 15 years “the world has experienced a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks”. The Global Terrorism Database listed 1,395 attacks in 1998, a figure that has steadily risen since then, reaching a record high of 8,441 in 2012.

But one trend that AFP reporter Sara Hussein warns of is the rush to brand an incident as a “terrorist attack” before enough information has been gathered.

“This could be avoided by waiting to do more reporting,” she says. “Journalists should err on the side of caution if information doesn't seem properly sourced.”

Sarah Hussein’s top tips on cover terror attacks and armed conflict

  • Focus on crucial information only. “Information to focus on during an attack would follow broadly the same parameters as with any news story. The 'who-what-where-how-why'.”
  • Properly source your information “in the chaos of an attack, some information [or rumours] may be hard to ascertain quickly and accurately. But make sure your information is properly sourced. This is especially important when it comes to casualty tolls, and the method of the attack.”
  • Use social media carefully “Social media can be a blessing and a curse in these instances. It can be a useful early warning system, but only for things to be reported, double-checked and properly sourced.”

Mai Shams el Din’s top tips for covering terrorism and armed conflict

  •  Take care of yourself first : “Young journalists always think that being the first on the scene to cover the attack will make them a name, and sometimes they will take foolish risks. But no story is worth compromising your safety for. There is no shame in running away because your life is more important than any story.”
  • When information is scarce, find alternatives: “Getting access to the terrorists themselves is difficult, but you can talk to people affiliated with them. Connect with former associates of a certain organisation or analyse their own media and discourse”
  • Find a different angle: “I find it interesting to revisit old attacks, talk with survivors and the families of victims, there are many unexplored angles and approaches that would produce deeper stories that often go ignored.” 

Photo: AP/Bilal Hussein