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What We Learned Covering the 2015 Paris Terror Attacks

The VICE News Paris office looks back at the lessons learned while reporting on the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II.

by Etienne Rouillon
Dec 31 2015, 11:38am

Foto di Etienne Rouillon/VICE News

In November 2014, VICE News launched its French channel and opened an office in Paris. Just a few weeks later, life in the French capital ground to a halt after three gunmen attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

From the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January to the November shootout between special forces and the three terror suspects holed up in an apartment in the north of the city, here is a look back at what we learned covering the deadly attacks that bookended 2015.

"Earwitnesses" are sometimes more reliable than eyewitnesses

A man talks on the phone outside the Belle Équipe bar, in Paris, shortly after gunmen opened fire on the crowd on November 13, killing 19. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

While reporting on the Charlie Hebdo attack, we learned that asking witnesses to describe what they heard is often more reliable than collecting eyewitness testimonies.

When the city was struck by multiple, simultaneous attacks on November 13, quizzing witnesses about the sounds they heard helped us wrap our heads around what was going on. "It went ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta," said a woman who was sitting in a café when gunmen open fire on La Belle Équipe restaurant next door.

On November 13, minutes after gunmen opened fire on people sitting outside the Belle Équipe bar, in the city's 11th Arrondissement, a customer of a nearby restaurant told us, This description gave a key indication about what had just happened. 

"Ra-ta-ta" is very different from "boom, boom." An eyewitness may have a hard time differentiating between a hunting rifle and an AK-47, but there is no mistaking the noise of an automatic weapon for that of a handgun.

In the past year, it has sometimes been hard for us to accurately estimate the duration of an attack. "It seemed to last for minutes on end — possibly ten," said one witness, who was parking her scooter a few yards away rom the Charlie Hebdo offices when the Kouachi brothers fled the scene.

The woman however, had no difficulty describing the shots she heard, which helped us begin to piece together a chronology of events.

Panic spreads fast on social media

Snipers positions themselves on a roof during the anti-terror rally in Paris on January 11. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

A huge crowd of mourners gathered outside Notre Dame Cathedral on November 15 to pay their respects to the 130 people who were killed in the November 13 attacks. As the bells of the cathedral rang out in the early evening sky, panicked murmurs spread through the crowd. Groups of people started to leave the square in haste, eyes glued to their phones.

The panic broke out after reports surfaced that shots had been fired in the Marais district — the city's famous Jewish quarter. Soon, the rumor was all over Twitter, and panic spread to other neighborhoods, including the streets outside Le Carillon — one of the eateries hit in the November 13 attacks.

Firecrackers set off by some kids were later said to have sparked the fear of renewed attacks. Another false alarm caused real panic the previous evening, when firecrackers set off at a wedding had led to speculation police and the suspects were engaged in a shootout.

Police patrol the area outside the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen killed 90 people on November 13. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

In the days following the January and November terror attacks, sifting through the cascading rumors was key to providing accurate breaking news updates.

Soon after the November 13 attacks, French daily Le Monde published advice on how to assess the credibility of sources and avoid propagating false rumors. The daily advised staying clear of information published online by strangers and sticking to trusted news sources. It also warned its readers to be wary of photographs, which can easily be taken out of context, photoshopped or erroneously captioned.

Finally, even trusted media can get things wrong, particularly during breaking news.

Influence of the January attacks on the November coverage

First responders and forensic police arrive outside the Charlie Hebdo headquarters on January 7. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

One of the ways to assess the accuracy of information is to ask yourself if you have experienced a similar situation before. False information often looks a lot like old news. A lot of the false narratives that emerged in the wake of the November 13 attacks echoed events seen in January.

Armed police officers patrol the area outside Porte de la Villette, in the north of the city, on January 8. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

On November 14, just hours after armed commandos gunned down 130 people in central Paris, news broke that a car driven by the suspects had forced its way through a police barricade in the western suburbs of Paris. A similar rumor had surfaced back in January, when the Kouachi brothers were said to be driving back towards central Paris. As a precaution, armed police were stationed at Porte de la Villette and Porte de Pantin — two of the city gates. Both rumors turned out to be false.

Reporters are all in one place, telling the same story

Journalists and members of the public gather on a roundabout on January 9, near the scene of the police shootout with the Kouachi brothers in Dammartin-en-Goële. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

What is the point of having dozens of reporters all in one place, reporting on the same news? Every news outlet wants to pen its own breaking story, of course.

Back in November, a crowd of journalists gathered behind a police line in Saint-Denis, as police launched their raid against the hideout of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks. Hours had passed since the last shots had been fired. Reporters, police officers, special forces, soldiers and first responders — everyone was waiting.

Reporters and members of the public stand in front of a police line during the raid in Saint-Denis. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

Suddenly, 50 or so journalists, armed with cameras, started following a police officer who was chasing an individual down the street. They returned from their wild goose chase within minutes, disappointed to have lost their spot in the crowd for no reason.

Minutes later, the crowd got agitated again after hearing a loud bang. Many assumed the police had launched a new raid. By talking to other reporters, we soon realized that what sounded like an explosion was in fact the sound a road worker dragging a barrier across a nearby street. Cross-checking our intuitions — as well as information — was key to providing accurate breaking news coverage.

A tendency to assume all violence is terror-related

Police officers cordon off the entrance to Primark on July 13, after gunmen took hostages inside the shopping mall. (Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News)

In the weeks and months following a terror attack, there is a tendency to assume any hostage situation or incident necessitating major police intervention is terror-related.

In 2015, one week after gunman Amedy Coulibaly held shoppers hostage at a kosher supermarket in Paris, an armed man took hostages in a post office northwest of the city. Many initially believed the hostage situation to be terror-related, but officials later announced the man had been suffering from "romantic disappointment." Later in the year, the city was momentarily on edge again when gunmen held up a clothing store in a Paris shopping mall.

One of the challenges in the aftermath of tragic attacks like the ones that struck Paris in November, is losing the "terror goggles" to ensure accurate and objective reporting. This will be one of many lessons we continue to apply as we go into 2016.

Follow Étienne Rouillon on Twitter: @rouillonetienne