Wanted: clear criteria for news organisations when dealing with hate speech and extremist content

By Chris Elliott, a Trustee of the Ethical Journalism Network and former Readers’ Editor of The Guardian

There are clear signs that hate speech is on the increase, often turbo charged by social media.

The London Bridge attacks in July triggered a big spike in hate crimes with a significant amount of them being attacks in the street directed at British Muslims, the Guardian reported.

Figures released by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, showed a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks since the atrocity at London Bridge, and a 40% increase in racist incidents, compared with the daily average this year.

The increase in recorded Islamophobic incidents after the London Bridge attacks is greater than it was after the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby and after the 2015 massacre in Paris, two different sets of figures have suggested, according to the Guardian.

News organisations and journalists should have a clear set of rules and guidelines that help us do our jobs as journalists but not their job as terrorists. Our job is to inform, not to inflame.

A key point about terrorism is that the psychological impact is often greater than the physical. This is really epitomised by Islamic State. I don’t think there has there ever been a more media savvy terrorist group than IS and news organisations have had to think long and hard about how they counter the group’s slick PR machine.

Of course they, the terrorists, don’t need us, the journalists. There is social media, which has no inhibitions and journalists often feel under huge pressure to match that torrent of instant, unfiltered information. That’s why journalists have to determine the boundaries to ensure credible information that can be trusted. And I always make this point: ethical journalism is not only a moral imperative but also a commercial one. Whatever the long term financial model for journalism, why would anyone pay for something they don’t trust?

So, don’t be the megaphone for the terrorist, don’t adopt their words through sensationalist headlines, be measured and considered at all times and perhaps, above all, don’t rush to publish. It is very hard for a journalist to resist banging something up on the site as soon as he or she gets it but good responsible journalism means that we should resist the temptation when we are unsure of the information we have. Verification and context should be the watchwords.

The Ethical Journalism Network, of which I am a board member and trustee, has created a five-point test to help journalists decide how to address material that is or is likely to be hate speech. These principles are not a mechanism to curtail free speech but they are there to enable a journalist to do his or her job effectively without giving a platform to language that is defined by Article 19, the charity that fights for freedom of expression, as: “the advocacy of hatred based on nationality, race or religion”.

Here is the five points test:

  • Status: Just because someone says something outrageous does not make it newsworthy. Is the speaker representative and influential or obscure and unknown?
  • Reach: A private conversation in a public place may include unspeakable ideas but do little harm. But speech to large public audiences and dissemination through the Internet can have widespread impact
  • Intention: Is the objective to incite violence and intense hatred? Is the speech targeting individuals and groups (in particular, marginalised communities or vulnerable minorities). Who suffers through publication? Who benefits?
  • Content and form: Are the words, pictures, gestures and manner of the speech likely to generate intense hatred and incite violence?
  • Economic, social and political climate: Inflammatory speech is particularly dangerous at times of political tension, the threat of war, and of public anxiety over social and economic conditions.

Chris Elliott discussed this topic during the International Journalism Week 2017. Featured image © @SophieAHarper