Combating contagion:
Can journalists avoid fanning the flames of domestic violent extremism while reporting on it?

America Shaken after pro-Trump Mob Storms US Capitol,” “Democracy Under Attack,” “Trump Incites Mob, Rampage in Capitol Forces Evacuations; It’s ‘Part of his Legacy,’ a Republican Says”—these were the headlines that graced the pages of newspapers following the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. Politicians and pundits from both sides of the aisle expressed concern, albeit for different reasons, about how the news media covered these events. Despite these critiques, a year and a half later journalists continued to cover the subsequent commissions with sensationalistic one-liners, with one article declaring “‘US democracy will not survive for long’: how January 6 hearings plot a roadmap to autocracy.” Of course, reporting on January 6th only signifies a larger problem about sensationalism in media coverage. Academics have long warned of the dangers of “contagion,” by which “violence-prone individuals and groups imitate forms of (political) violence attractive to them, based on examples usually popularized by mass media.” To prevent such outcomes following reporting on violent extremism events, science-based measures and best practices to mitigate contagion must be implemented.

To be sure, the benefits of such measures and practices must be weighed against the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press. This balancing is a core ethical dilemma associated with combating contagion. To resist the negative effects of contagion while protecting free speech, this article urges news outlets to put in place more conscientious journalistic practices and to establish a violent extremism ethics editor. These self-imposed measures wouldreduce First Amendment concerns, since any limitations on speech and press would be voluntary, while serving as a meaningful antidote to contagion.

Contagion arising out of reporting on international terrorism, suicides, and mass shootings is well documented. A 2019 study out of the University of Western Australia, for example, concluded that al-Qaeda news coverage appeared to “actively encourage al-Qaeda attacks,” “systematically raise Google searches for the group and its leaders,” and lead to radicalization spikes. Researchers at High Point University and the University of Toledo have found similar trends following news coverage of suicides and mass shootings; their systematic review of 56 research articles found a “strong association between media coverage and suicidality.” Epidemiologists at Columbia University documented an average 9.85 percent increase in suicides (across different age groups and genders) in the four months following the sensationalized coverage of actor and comedian Robin Williams’ death. Likewise, researchers at the Educator’s School Safety Network discovered a contagion effect after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which “threats and incidents of school violence increased 300% in the first month after the attack.” Notably, the majority of these threats and incidents occurred “in the first twelve days when news coverage was at its highest.”

Given the scholarship supporting the existence of contagion in these contexts, it is likely that reporting on the pressing subject of domestic violent extremism would produce similar outcomes. The documented rise in domestic violent extremism investigations from 2020 to 2021, in part attributed to the “emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol,” therefore prompts the question: What can be done to prevent the negative consequences associated with news media coverage of domestic violent extremism while ensuring compatibility with full and detailed reporting on such incidents?    

The ethical gold standard for reporting on violent extremism is the Handbook: A Conflict Sensitive Approach to Reporting on Conflict and Violent Extremism. Produced in conjunction with Internews, an international nonprofit supporting independent media, and funded by the European Union, this manual summarizes the central practices of conflict sensitive reporting, which aims to prevent radicalization, extremism, and terrorism. Journalists should “avoid portraying conflicts as consisting of only two parties contesting the same goals(s),” instead  separating the two parties into subgroups. Additionally, journalists should refrain from using sensationalist language, which can play into extremist objectives, and avoid romanticizing acts of violent extremism, which can lead to further radicalization. The preliminary findings of an interesting Worcester Polytechnic Institute study support similar conclusions. The study, simulating the long-term effects of contagion on a population of at-risk individuals following a terrorist event, found that contagion containment interventions were highly effective in substantially reducing the number of contagion-related incidents. Those advocating for similar reforms in the coverage of mass shootings call for additional measures, such as considering the placement of stories, refraining from excessive reporting, and avoiding elevating the perpetrator. Along these lines, in 2016 a prominent French media outlet, Le Monde, announced that it would no longer publish the names or images of terrorists. Although such measures may appear trivial, implementing them could inhibit the trickle-down radicalization that coverage of violent extremism can provoke.

Efforts to address contagion and minimize sensationalism do not imply that journalists should avoid reporting on violent extremism. Journalists can convey essential information on violent extremism to the public in an ethical and responsible manner that limits further radicalization and violence. Doing so would also be in keeping with an important principle that lies at the heart of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, which states that journalists should “[b]alance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.”  

Consequently, the SPJ and others have argued that voluntary, self-imposed restrictions are “the most effective antidote to questionable reporting.” For example, self-imposed guidelines have been developed to regulate media coverage of suicide. While the impact of these guidelines “depends on their successful implementation,” there is evidence that “repeated distribution of these guidelines resulted in an improvement in the quality of reporting about suicide and a reduction in the Austria’s national suicide rate.” Additionally, the aforementioned study on al-Qaeda news coverage also proposed self-imposed guidelines as a possible method for avoiding media encouragement of terrorism, with the caveat that additional research is needed to determine the efficacy of this strategy.

However, key objections to this approach are that self-imposed restrictions conflict with the economic incentives of the media and lack the critical element of enforcement. According to news value theory, the “news media’s extensive coverage of violent extremism” is driven by “newsworthiness,” which takes into account factors such as relevance, topicality, composition, unusualness, entertainment, worth, and agenda. Acts of violent extremism rank highly on many of these metrics, provide newsworthy stories, and therefore continue to attract media attention. It is likely that some organizations would neglect ethical considerations and continue to capitalize on the public’s desire for drama and storytelling. As one Norwegian journalist admitted: “economic factors are more decisive than codes of conduct.” While self-regulation could work in the short term, without long-term enforcement mechanisms it is unlikely that news outlets would stay the course if they began hemorrhaging audiences and profits.

Despite the inherent newsworthiness of violent extremism events, self-imposed restrictions remain a viable framework for promoting ethical journalism and combating contagion. In fact, some news outlets have already established the role of public editor, whose central mission is to “serve the… many readers and [ensure] the accuracy and ethical standards of… journalism.” This individual is independent from the newsroom, reporting to the publisher rather than an editor. This separation of powers gives the public editor the latitude to “weigh in on public complaints” and publicly acknowledge when “journalists fall short of the [organization’s] ethical standards.” The existence of the public editor role suggests that news outlets are willing to forego capitalizing on newsworthy stories when doing so would conflict with ethical journalistic practices.

However, current public editor roles are inadequate to address extremism contagion. For one, the role lacks the specific mandate to enforce ethical reporting on violent extremism events. Additionally, there is not enough awareness around the unique challenges of violent extremism reporting and how ethical journalism can prevent contagion. Finally, this role acts retroactively, investigating claims of error and questionable journalism raised by readers and publishing corrections only when deemed necessary. Such a function would fail in the context of contagion, as the average reader is unlikely to raise such concerns. Even if they did, the consequences of contagion would still be felt; once misinformation or sensationalized information has reached the public, it is difficult to reverse the negative effects.

Therefore, news outlets should consider creating a violent extremism ethics editor, a role which could also be assumed by existing public editors. The position would be tasked with enforcing journalistic ethics in the domain of violent extremism. Additionally, to promote consistency, the SPJ or another similar organization should develop a reference handbook comparable to the Conflict Sensitive Approach to Reporting on Conflict and Violent Extremism Handbook with guidelines tailored to violent extremism in the United States that could be implemented by violent extremism ethics editors.

Adopting these measures would be a vital step in promoting more ethical practices among journalists reporting on violent extremism. At the same time, delegating the responsibility to design and implement such measures to the media industry itself empowers journalists to develop ethical reporting practices without infringing on their constitutional rights as members of the free press. Still, it is important to acknowledge that there may be a fundamental tension between two legitimate societal interests: on the one hand, the interest in preventing contagion, and on the other, in having a free press. Accordingly, the proposed measures do not purport to “solve” the problem of contagion, only to mitigate it. Nevertheless, by implementing them, the news media industry could limit the contagion effect and play a critical role in the fight against domestic violent extremism.

Isabelle Terranova is a third-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, where she is a member of the National Security Law Society and a participant in the National Security Law Specialization program. She graduated from Boston University in 2020 with a B.A. in Psychology and minors in International Relations and Spanish. She was an intern in CERL’s 2021 Summer Internship Program.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.

Mailing List


Submissions to The Rule of Law Post. Please refer to CERL’s submission guidelines for additional details on the blog post format. Should your submission be accepted, we ask that you please complete the Agreement to Transfer Copyright.

Please upload text in one document under 6 mb. Preferred format as a simple text file (.txt).

Share Combating contagion:
Can journalists avoid fanning the flames of domestic violent extremism while reporting on it? on:

Combating contagion:
Can journalists avoid fanning the flames of domestic violent extremism while reporting on it?