Two recent UNESCO books formed the basis of a media briefing at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday.
Presented within the format of the “Noon briefing” by the spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, the publications are part of UNESCO’s work in preventing violent extremism.
Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger highlighted that one of the two publications at hand, and titled “Terrorism and the media”, was a practical handbook based on international experience. “It sets out a framework for coverage that is professional, proportionate and perceptive,” said Berger.
Asked by a journalist about the adage that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”, Berger responded saying that the book precisely cautioned about the use of language and labelling which could politicize coverage.
Another journalist highlighted the importance of covering underlying drivers of terrorism. To this, Berger replied that one could adapt a phrase from columnist Thomas Friedman to propose that journalists covering terror should “be in the lighting business, not the heating business”. Hence, it is important to provide in-depth coverage of the subject, he said.
Journalists should provide facts, nor fear, in reporting on terrorism, urged the UNESCO director. “In addition, policy-makers should realize the value of professional journalism in coverage of terror. They should not fan coverage, and nor they should blame journalists for doing coverage as if this was glorification.”
Moving to the second publication, Youth and Violent Extremism on Social Media, Berger described the findings in this study, which reviewed more than 550 scientific articles on the subject.
The publication showed that violent extremists sought to use social media as a pull factor, said Berger. “However, there is no evidence about how effective these efforts are. It seems possible that social media is more likely to serve as a facilitator within many other processes; rather than being an actual cause of violent extremism.”
He added: “The importance of this finding is because simply assuming that social media is a ‘deus ex machine’ of violent radicalization, can serve to draw policy attention away from other key factors such as prisons, places of worship, schools or indoctrination camps.” It is important to put the role of social media in wider perspective, said the Director.
Berger also signalled that the UNESCO study could not find any research into the impact of counter-strategies to violent radicalization content online. “This means that it is hard to tell whether it is more effective to block offending content, or to leave it online in order to monitor access and sharing,” he said.
Summarising the recommendations, the director stated that besides for the need for more research, the publication “also signals the importance of supporting independent journalism as a credible narrative that posed an alternative to violent extremist content”.
Both publications contain the underlying message that quality independent journalism enables evidence-based thinking so that people can use their heads, and not merely hearts. “This is essential in the face of the emotional issues of terrorism and radicalization toward violent extremism,” he noted.