Keeping readers up to date as the facts become clearer

The killings in Norway have prompted a few serious concerns among readers about the nature of the coverage. As the world struggles to come to terms with the deaths of 77 people in a bomb and shooting attack, how far should early analysis go in searching for likely causes?

One reader wrote: “My first issue is with your lack of transparency. Before it was clear who orchestrated the attacks, you published an article that strongly suggested Islamist groups were responsible. This article … has since been entirely reworded [with the headline changing from] ‘Suspicion falls on Islamist groups’ to ‘Norway attacks suggest political motive’ … The Guardian did not admit an earlier mistake but sought to act as though the original article had never happened … ”

The reporting and analysis of a developing news event involves updating as you learn more about what happened. Inevitably, what seemed right at midnight may well be wrong six hours later.

That’s why telling the reader how far you can trust a piece of information matters as much as the efforts made to verify it. The article’s writer said: “We had constant discussions and changed the analysis piece four times during the evening … we posed the first piece as a question [rather than fact] and reacted to that reality hourly as you would expect us too.”

Readers of print largely accept that stories will change with each edition and that material will disappear, but some online readers think that this updating might be a conspiracy to hide “errors”. The basic rule on the Guardian website is that simple changes within the first 24 hours don’t require a footnote unless they are egregious – after that they do. Perhaps in this case, rather than changing the article online, it would have been better for the newsdesk to add a footnote and a link to the later version.

In the eyes of the same reader, there was a further problem with our coverage: “My second complaint is with your words … when the attacks occurred, the Guardian described the perpetrators as terrorists … Now that he has been revealed to have been a white Christian, you describe him merely as an ‘attacker’ and a ‘gunman’ and an ‘extremist.'”

In the first few hours after the attacks it looked like the kind we have seen before, mounted by an organised group. Such groups have clear political ambitions and so fulfil part of the Chambers dictionary definition of terrorism as “an organised system of violence and intimidation, especially for political ends”. But it is debatable whether – as one man with a rambling “manifesto” – the man charged with the attack, Anders Behring Breivik, fits the role of terrorist. Guardian columnists argued both ways during last week.

One wrote: “Worst of all has been the confusion of language. That a mass murderer might like to parade as a jihadi, a holy warrior or a Knight Templar does not make him one. That he does something terrible does not make him a terrorist. Cameron’s reference on Monday to Britain having also been a victim ‘of horrific acts of terrorism’ made precisely the linkage that Breivik might have wanted.

“Terrorism is a specific and rational political form: the use of violence to achieve a multiplier of fear through a civilian population to a particular end. Visiting ‘shock and awe’ by bombing Baghdad in 2003 was terrorism, as were the bombs on the London Underground. Killing Norwegian teenagers (not Muslims) to express some vague hatred for society is not. It is merely deranged.”

Actually, as a reader pointed out, there were some young Muslim members at the Labour party youth camp that Breivik attacked on the island of Utøya.

Another aspect of Guardian coverage that caused readers concern was the level of detail about Breivik’s extremist views. Some thought that to give details of where to find his “manifesto” could be found gave him the publicity that he craved. Some even felt that we should neither use his name nor his picture.

We should be careful about reproducing such views without comment or context. Suppression, however, is not the answer. What the Guardian was trying to do was to examine Breivik’s motivations in as intelligent way as possible, and to try to describe and understand something that seemed in the immediate aftermath to be beyond understanding.

This column was originally published in The Guardian on July 31, 2011.

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