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When Reporting on Violence, Headlines Can Enflame Tense Situations

May 17, 2016

GPJ-USAGLOBAL PRESS, HQ — We’re a global news organization, so I often wake up to emails, texts and other messages from our reporters about breaking news in their countries. That’s what happened in April, when Prudence Phiri of our Zambia News Desk sent me an email to tell me about what was going on in Lusaka, her country’s capital city.

Multiple people had died, she wrote, and those deaths were suspected to be ritual killings. Body parts were missing from the bodies, including the hearts of two of the deceased.

Pru’s photo was of protesters who gathered to demand police action. We prepared to publish it with a caption, but it wasn’t long before Pru sent an update: Riots were occurring throughout the city. People were looting stores. It was possible, Pru said, that the violence was due to rumors that foreigners, Rwandans in particular, were behind the killings.

I looked online to check out local news. Both international and local news agencies were reporting on the riots, and many of those stories repeated the rumors that police say caused the violence.

A few of the headlines:

“Hundreds riot in Zambia capital over ritual killings.”

“Zambia: Xenophobic attacks target Rwandan shop owners accused of ritual killings.”

One particularly troubling example published that week included this headline: “Zambia xenophobic riots: Two burned alive in Lusaka.”

In the middle of the story was a section titled “Why are 6,000 Rwandans living in Zambia?”

A Zambian police spokesperson was paraphrased in that same story warning that it’s an offense to spread rumors that cause alarm.

Other news reports, both local to Lusaka and international, echoed the same tone and repeated claims that foreigners might be behind the deaths.

I went back to Pru to find out more. Were the riots due to xenophobia? Were foreigners being targeted? She was clear about what she didn’t know: Who killed and mutilated those people, and why.

We published a short story as an introduction to a photo slide show of images of the riots and looters being apprehended by police. Restraint was paramount. Our headline might have gotten more clicks had it said, “Foreigners Blamed for Violent Deaths in Zambia!” And that headline would have been more in line with what other news agencies were publishing on the same topic.

But that headline, and a story in that tone, would have done just what that police spokesperson warned against: spreading rumors that cause alarm.

I noted an international news agency above that published information about Rwandans living in Zambia. That news agency included a link to another page on that same site: “Rwanda: 100 days of slaughter.” That linked page held a brief explainer of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, including details about radio stations and newspapers that spread messages of hate. Was that link intended to describe to readers why Rwandans might be living in Zambia, decades after the Rwandan genocide? Perhaps. Could it have been viewed by some readers as evidence that Rwandans are capable of violence? Certainly.

I don’t believe the news agencies that published dramatic headlines and layouts about the riots in Zambia were trying to incite violence. But there is overwhelming evidence that the media can do just that by using imprecise or misleading language.

This was our headline: “Riots Spread Through Lusaka After Six Die in Suspected Ritual Killings.” Our lead-in: “Police say false rumors sparked looting in Zambia’s capital city this week.” The story notes that several looted stores were owned by foreigners, and this information is immediately followed by police and government statements that the looting was based on false rumors.

False rumors.

Even if throngs of people in Zambia believed those rumors to be true, we had it on good authority that those rumors are false, and we had no reason to dispute or question that good authority.

Our story emphasized that those rumors, according to police and government officials, are false. We reported, accurately, that some people believed them nonetheless, but we were careful to give appropriately little space to what local authorities say is a falsehood.

As this news broke, Pru was working on a different story, about efforts to curb potential election-related violence ahead of Zambia’s August vote. She told me this week she prefers to hold on that story for now, not to avoid reporting the news, but to respect the wishes of her sources who are concerned that commenting on violence now could enflame a tense situation. We’ll get to that story in a few weeks, once Lusakans have some distance from the April riots. That’s responsible journalism.