When headlines on terrorism may lead us astray

For this blog I had to consult my eldest daughter, who is a Carleton University journalism grad. I wanted to confirm, as I had suspected, that those who write articles are not necessarily the same ones who write headlines. She also added that when it came to online news stories headlines are constructed to garner attention: ‘click bait’ she called it.

I thought of this as I read a news item this morning about an arrest in Spain, thanks to cooperation between Spanish and Moroccan law enforcement and intelligence services, of a man believed to be planning a terrorist attack in Seville. Here is how various news sites reported the incident (headlines only(:

So some just say ‘Seville’ while others mention that the attack was planned for this week. For the record, the original reference came from a Spanish site called El Confidencial which wrote that the suspect confessed to his plan to detonate a bomb labelled “Mother of Satan” during Holy Week.

The problem is that it is not 100% certain that this is true. Spanish and Moroccan authorities are mum on when the alleged attack was set for or where the target was. This may be in order not to harm the subsequent criminal case or because there are still a lot of questions outstanding surrounding the plot.

My point here is that this may be a case of inaccurate reporting. I do not think it is a coincidence that news sites are pushing out the message that Christianity’s most solemn festival was in the terrorist’s sight shortly after a bunch of conspiracy theorists claimed that this week’s fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was also the result of a terrorist attack (despite precisely ZERO evidence to support it – see my earlier blog on this).

In truth, the Holy Week commemoration may well have been the intended target. That Islamic State – or its remnants – or Al Qaeda or any number of Islamist extremists would love to hit a bunch of Christian kuffar during the Easter season is beyond doubt. These groups’ propaganda is full of exhortations to carry out attacks against ‘Islam’s enemies’ and the ‘Crusaders’. In this sense such a plot would not surprise anyone, including me.

The problem is that we just don’t know yet and I find this kind of journalism irresponsible. Even if terrorism is very, very real, there is already enough Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment out there: we don’t need to feed it. Much better to wait for facts to come in than to go with a headline that may be wrong.

Then again many are not concerned with letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Except that this practice can lead to increased hate and distrust and may even spawn its own act of violence (anyone remember the Washington DC Comet Ping Pong ‘Pizzagate’ affair?). I really wish people would measure twice before they cut once.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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