With the ongoing siege in Sidney, it is time to reflect on the media coverage. When i turned on CNN just a couple of hours into this, they had switched to a local television station in Australia. They didn’t know that much about the incident either, but that didn’t kept them from speculating. At that point it was unclear if the hostage taker wanted to speak to the australian prime minister. One of the correspondents made that very clear. In his next sentence, that same correspondent started to think about what the prime minister may be saying to the unknown gunman. This sort of „what if“-journalism is like a modern virus.
Thinking back to the time when i started in journalism, there was one strict rule forced into my head: journalism is about reporting, you don’t speculate, you don’t judge, you only report what is happening. But this rule seems to be more and more forgotten. The most important thing nowadays is attention. When CNN switched back to its own reporters, one of them started to tell how many SWAT police officers were at the scene. And where they are located around the café in Sydney. On live television, accessible from all around the world – including one particular cafe in Downton Sydney.
Here in Germany, the media has learnt its lesson during the hostage-taking of Gladbeck in 1988. Do we really need another incident like that to come back to a much more grounded news coverage? A coverage that doesn’t need to sell "exclusive" informations regardless of the price. And don’t forget: the Islamic State seems to be a terrorist organization that survives on worldwide attention. When the media turns a dramatic, but local hostage situation into a worldwide event, it will cause more and more incidents like that.
In Germany we call this the Werther-effect: In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a story on a young man called Werther who commited suicide because of a failed romance. In the following years more and more young people killed themselves – just like their fictional role model. Blowing up local stories to unjustified proportions makes it only more attractive for religious extremists to copy those events.
As a side note, you may think about CCTV and how places with an all-embracing surveillance are becoming prime targets for those criminals, who want and need public attention. You may argue that CCTV helps to identify the criminals, but people who are willing to commit suicide during a terrorist attack are not affraid of being identified. They want their faces, their actions and their crimes broadcasted in high definition around the globe. So maybe we should think about two things: Not paying that much attention to criminals whose „fame“ only depends on our attention and getting back to a more reliable reporting without all the speculations.