As Crikey approached deadline the Martin Place siege was still unfolding. At least one gunman is reportedly holding at least a dozen people hostage in the Lindt cafe in the Sydney CBD. Australian Federal Police have joined NSW police at the scene.

It remains unclear who is behind the siege, but a flag associated with Islamic jihadis has been seen in the window of the cafe, where hostages are pressed up against the glass. It’s a serious and deeply frightening situation, and when so little official information is available — it took the PM two hours to make a media statement — it can be tempting to jump to conclusions.

Mainstream and social media have been in overdrive this morning, with experts in Islamic terror wheeled out in an attempt to understand the alleged perpetrators and their motives. This is understandable when there are broadcast minutes and column inches to fill, and in the absence of any concrete information.

But there’s little the media can do to help resolve the situation as it stands, and misinformation can be damaging. It’s worth remembering what happened in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, when amateur sleuths on Reddit declared that a student who was missing was probably the Boston bomber. He was later found dead in a suspected suicide. The New York Post also published the pictures of two people it claimed might be connected to the bombing, under the headline “Bag Men”. They had nothing to do with the attack and later sued the paper.

Until we have more information, we urge caution on behalf of the media.

Peter Fray

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