No ‘lone wolf’: media urged to take care over terrorism vocabulary

Caroline Davies
Manchester Arena bombing first anniversary tribute: the media can be a force for good by focusing on how communities come together in the wake of an attack. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Descriptions of terrorist attackers as a “lone wolf” or “mastermind” and nicknames such as “the Beatles” only glorifies them, say terrorism survivors who are launching a campaign to change the vocabulary around terrorism.

The #WordsMatter campaign appeals to media to usedispassionate language, and to avoid publishing images of terrorists in combat gear and using war terminology such as “soldier”, which serves to legitimise them.

In a series of short films to be broadcast on social media from Tuesday, survivors from attacks including London 7/7, the Manchester Arena bombing, Westminster Bridge, and the Bataclan nightclub attack in Paris, describe their personal experiences and how the media can be a help and hindrance.

Figen Murray, describing coping with coverage of the Manchester bombing in which her son, Martyn Hett, 29, was killed, says: “I absolutely dislike words like ‘lone wolf’, Isis, Isil, IS, the Beatles or Jihadi John – all these kind of terms – they glorify people.”

“‘Islamic State’, they’re not a state, they’re a group of people doing terrible things.”

Zoe Alexander, whose brother, Nick Alexander, 35, was killed at the Bataclan attack in Paris in 2015, said terms that portrayed Isis or similar organisations as “glamorous” were “extremely counterproductive”. “I think it is probably a destructive way to use our words when we should be more dispassionate and more cold about our reporting.”

Justine Merton-Scott, who with her husband, Tony, was caught up in the Bataclan attack, said terms such as soldier, lone wolf and mastermind implied the attacks were carried out for legitimate reasons.

Attackers used terminology that “they are at war with us”, she says. “It’s not a war. They are not soldiers. That is the propaganda they use for themselves. It’s not a James Bond film. It makes it sound much more glamorous than it is”.

The films have been produced by the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation, set up in memory of the two child victims of the 1993 IRA bomb attack in Warrington. The foundation has also helped compile a Counter-Daesh dictionary.

The dictionary urges the use of “lone actor” rather than “lone wolf” . “Wolf has a positive, almost heroic connotation. Care should be taken not to glorify criminal activity,” it states. “Mastermind(s)” which implies giving credit to a criminal, and “soldier(s)“ should be replaced by “perpetrator(s)”.

The word “caliphate” gives false legitimacy as it is not a state, and should be replaced with “Daesh-held territory”, it advises. It also warns care over using words such as “jihad”, “jihadi”, and “jihadi bride” which often ignore the complex religious meanings of jihad. “If reporting insists on its usage, ensure it is distinguished as ‘violent jihad’,” it states.

Some describe being treated insensitively by media reporting attacks. Murray describes how her teenage daughter was told of her brother’s death by a journalist knocking on their door before it was officially confirmed. “I found that cruel beyond belief, distasteful beyond belief, disgusting, almost criminal. It should never have happened,” she says.

Graham Foulkes, whose son David, 22, was killed on the underground during the 7/7 attacks on London in 2005, believes the media can be a force for good by focusing on how communities come together in the wake of an attack.

“We saw in London, Manchester and in Paris and Tunisia that the local community do really gel together very well. That is important, and one side of the event that the media should focus on. It’s important to show how we respond when they attack,” he says.

Nick Taylor, the chief executive of the Peace Foundation, said it urged the media to take care with vocabulary. “If we are to defeat violent extremists, then we have to take away extremists’ legitimacy and undermine any shred of credibility they think they have by showing respect to those impacted, and responsibility in reporting and accepting that #WordsMatter,” he said.