23/05/2013 13:25 BST | Updated 23/07/2013 06:12 BST

How to Report on an Act of Terror

Newspapers have both a right and a profound responsibility to report events as they occurred. They have a responsibility not to censor the news or to report it in a misleading or biased way. And so I am thoroughly supportive of most major newspapers' decisions to display graphic images of the Woolwich attack on their front pages. The images are shocking and disturbing, but not more so than the fact that the act itself took place. Likewise, it is right that newspapers and other media outlets report the story fully, including the perpetrators' motives and messages of hatred.

What I cannot support is the editorial decision taken by some papers to splash the terrorists' message across their front pages, in effect fulfilling the terrorists' ultimate aim. An act of terror, however violent and horrific, is seldom the end goal of the perpetrators, but simply the means. The goal might be to intimidate, to spread fear, or to advance a political or ideological cause. What better way to spread fear and to cause division than a quote on the front page of a major newspaper, stating 'You people will never be safe'? When combined with the enlarged photo of the attacker with blood on his hands, it's a chilling message, one that could hardly have been designed better by the terrorists themselves.

Of course newspapers should report a barbaric attack in a way that reflects the extent of the violence inflicted. But there are ways to do this without propagating messages of terror. The Times for example, went for the headline 'Soldier hacked to death in London terror attack', an editorial decision that chooses to report the news in a way that conveys barbarity without providing the killers with a platform. This is even more important because the two men involved in this act appear to have a good understanding of how they intended to use social media to spread their message of terror. They allegedly spent up to twenty minutes after the killing attracting attention to themselves and inviting various members of the public to film them.

Reacting to an act of terror has become more complex in a world where news breaks in seconds rather than minutes, and often over Twitter and social media rather than by broadcasters and journalists. Once we have a presence online, we take on a responsibility not to respond in exactly the way that terrorists dream of, not to spread panic or to cause social division, and not to make wild assumptions about the identities of both perpetrators and victims that can go viral in minutes and cause great distress. Journalists and newspapers face complex moral choices; in an industry where being the first to break a story or report a shocking unknown fact can make a career, how sure do you have to be of a story's facts before reporting it? What if a victim's family have yet to be contacted?

The terrorists in this case also appear to have a good understanding of how fear spreads. After 9/11 and 7/7, governments' chief priority was to ensure that terrorist acts like those never happened again. One of the most shocking aspects of those acts was the sheer numbers involved. With this attack there appears to have been no attempt to inflict the most damage on the most people; instead there was an understanding that the killing of one person in a brutal and barbaric fashion could have the same impact.

But whilst we all have a responsibility not to over-react, we also have a responsibility to react. We cannot and should not dismiss these terrorists as mentally unstable and their words as mad rants. We should condemn their acts utterly but investigate their claims seriously and instigate open discussion about how to prevent this atrocity from creating further social division.