Opening Speech by Professor Renaud de la Brosse

9 May, 2017
Renaud de la Brosse

Indeed, today, conflicts and terrorism constitute a field of study particularly conducive to assess the role of media in contemporary democratic societies. It is the same also for societies engaged in transition and democratic consolidation processes, which are simultaneously facing the terrorist threat (as is the case of Tunisia, of Niger, of Algeria or of Morocco - countries of which some participants are nationals).

Our conference aims to adress some keys questions among which :

How terrorism does affect the media and their coverage of these events? Are the media an integral part of the strategy of terror deployed by the main actors, that are Islamist extremist groups lately?

To answer these question, one certainly has to examine all facets of the existing links and interrelations between the terrorist phenomenon and the media. Conflicting crises, as well as terrorist attacks, because of their sensational manifestations, will obviously not let the journalists, and the media, insensitive.

The fact is that the media market is now saturated, and that in response to this, we are witnessing the development of tactics which aims to capture the attention of the public. Recently there has been the rise of a form of dramatization of facts, or a phantasmagoria of the terrorist phenomenon by the media, which constitues a problematic tendency in itself, whose harmful effects are real. It's an understatement to say that an unhealthy relationship is at work today, especially in the attempts to cover live the occurrence of terrorist events.

The various national political scenes are increasingly marked by the predominance of the terrorist attacks, a new political reality is thus emerging - and it is of course first and foremost the media's responsibility to make it understandable, and to analyze it through the cover they deliver to the public at large.

In this complex process characterized by significant changes, in particular within the political field, media products participate in forging the unconscious and the collective representations: the media provide to their public the reading keys for the messages that are emitted, as they "give life" to the various actors and to identities which they bear. It is primarily the task of the media - given the role that is theirs in democratic regimes - to provide a reading grid, and of intelligibility, of the tragedies caused by terrorism and conflict.

But, precisely, how to ensure that the narrative construction of those is not accompanied by the risk, always present, to be exploited in one way or another, either by the states or by the terrorist actors, by simply the fact of relaying their official statements and / or their proselytizing? Here lies a trap against which the media and journalists must do everything to avoid to fall into, at the risk of losing their credibility as meaning providers to this new reality in the making.

To collect, produce and disseminate information in a context of conflict and terror is all but straightforward. From this point of view, as media researchers and as professional journalists, it can be extremely interesting for us to apprehend these social facts as revealing the role played today by the media in modern democratic societies or undergoing democratization.

To be able to do this, we must collectively ask the right questions, in the sense of relevance. Among which:

- Can there be a consensually accepted definition of what is the terrorist phenomenon?
- Is there a boundary existing between what constitutes a terrorist act, and violent protests of ideological essence?

- Which professional autonomy do journalists enjoy in covering conflict and terrorist events? To what extent can they fall under the control of actors such as states and terrorist groups?

- Can this new context lead to a reminiscence of censorship and self-censorship?

- On the contrary, if the freedom of covering these types of events exists, is there a risk of dangerous drift, particularly in case of live broadcasting?

- Is it possible to professionally cover some terrorist actions without contribute to give them visibility, which can result in a form of legitimation?

- What are the main challenges and obstacles faced by journalists in the field and in the newsroom when they should report such events? Should they make choices? With what consequences?

- Are the media able to enlight public opinion and influence the way such or such terrorist act can be perceived both nationally and internationally?

Which are the expected outcomes from this conference?

First of all, a far better understanding on terms used in a journalistic context and, hopefully, a more careful use of the words "terror", "terrorism", "terrorists", etc. Because the role of journalism is to report, not to scare. For the role of journalism is to report independantly, not to become a propaganda tool.

Second, comparing approaches between the adacemic world and the journalistic world, will help to facilitate the understanding of each other´s own field and objects. All society will benefit from this - not to mention the large public.

Third, comparing between different societies, through an international perspective, will help us understand what is happening on a larger arena - as a matter of fact, we can use each other´s experience as mirrors when looking at ourself.

Finally, whether you like it or not, the threat and the terrorist fact are there to continue. It is therefore important for us to see how far we can pursue our reflexion on this issue in the medium and long term. And, why not, by setting up a network of practitioners and researchers, capable of enlightening society and the public on the issues and challenges associated with appropriate and quality coverage of the terrorist phenomenon?

Kalmar May 9, 2017

Renaud de la Brosse
Professor in Media and Communication Studies with a specialisation in Journalism

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