The Symbiotic Relationship between Western Media and Terrorism
May 24, 2016
If it Bleeds, it Leads
Mass media and terrorism have become ever more intertwined in a mutually beneficial relationship often described as 'symbiotic.' This column examines that dynamic and outlines the need for news organizations to balance the public's right to know against the ability of militants to exploit news coverage to promote their beliefs.
On its side, the mass media capitalizes from the confusion and consternation caused by terrorist attacks to produce the kind of dramatic news that draws the attention of its viewers and readers.
As for extremists, they carefully calculate the scale, target, location, and timing of their assaults to stir ample media attention—or in other words, to generate advertisements for their messages on a global scale. The broader and more prolonged the media coverage of terrorism turns out to be, the greater the terrorists' feelings of accomplishment, influence, and power. As Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, put it: "Only by spreading the terror and outrage to a much larger audience can the terrorists gain the maximum potential leverage."1
In 1956, the Algerian insurgent Ramdane Abane wondered if it was better to kill 10 enemies in a remote village "when no one will talk about it" or "a single man in Algiers, which will be noted the next day" by audiences in distant countries who could influence policymakers.2 Terrorist plots are often carried out with the sole intention of being broadcast and reported—and many probably would not have been committed in the first place without the guarantee of media attention.
As mentioned above, terrorists know all too well that the newsworthiness of their strikes is directly related to the site chosen, the number of casualties inflicted, and the type of act. The impeccably coordinated 9/11 events are certainly the most illustrative example of this in recent history. In 1996, Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda issued its 'Declaration of War against the United States' to be followed two years later with a new communiqué entitled the 'World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.' Both statements received almost no coverage or reaction from the West, which led bin Laden to mastermind the infamous 9/11 attacks.3
On top of the traditional media outlets, today terrorist groups have at their disposal multiple social media platforms and a plethora of free and accessible programs to do their own broadcasting and spread their propaganda. Although these channels are proving useful for recruitment, the individuals who follow them tend to be already inclined to support the extremists' ideals and goals and do not trust the Western media in any case, which they see as the enemy. Therefore, no matter how technologically savvy terrorists may become in the future, in order to reach a mass global audience it will always be crucial for them to obtain the mass coverage provided by global news channels.
A Communications Strategy Designed to Terrify
The way terrorist organizations exploit the 24/7 media cycle to spread fear and insecurity feeds the fundamentalists' raison d'etre. A study carried out before and after 9/11 on whether TV viewing changes public attitudes to security policy concluded that sensationalist TV stories on terrorism make Americans more hawkish: "The more TV they watched, the more hawkish were their views."4
The media is not only a passive channel to share information, but a key player that shapes people's perceptions of reality. Al Qaeda first and now Daesh (or ISIS/ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant, as it styles itself) are engaging in terrorist operations not so much to force some kind of political change—as it has been the conventional demand of previous terrorist groups—but to unleash both the public resentment against ordinary Muslims and the consequent political backlash. The amount, focus, and tone of news coverage of terrorism can help stir the kind of public outrage that influences governments' responses to attacks. This is a long way off from the advice given by the British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, who is himself a target of religious extremism (in 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his assassination for blasphemy): "How do you defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized."
Television still Reigns
The 1970s saw a series of high-profile assassinations, airplane hijackings, kidnappings, and bombings, from a variety of disparate groups, ranging from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to the American 'Weather Underground,' the 'Japanese Red Army,' and more. In his book Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman pointed out that this coincided with a series of technological innovations that made it possible to send images cheaply and rapidly across great distances.5 This innovation was quickly seized on by the Palestinian Black September group, who in 1972 kidnapped several Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the first games to be broadcast live.
Today the emergence of an array of new digital platforms has turned media competition into a fierce contest to capture people's shortening attention spans. This has led to hyper-sensationalization in the way terrorist activity is reported, a tendency perhaps most apparent in television, still the general public's main source of information. TV has always had a love affair with drama and violence. "Being on television confers a kind of reality on people, much more so than being written about," said the late Daniel Schorr, a three-time Emmy-winning journalist who covered world news for more than 60 years.6 Drama is at its peak of effect on TV.
The Easy Route of Sensationalism
The ruthless nature of the news business can also be seen in the media coverage after the shocking first days of a terrorist attack. Once the novelty of the strike wears off, news organizations race to be the first to broadcast or publish so-far undisclosed details of the police investigation. To pick just two examples: in 2015, several major media outlets reported on how, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, Belgian police killed two jihadists after intercepting suspicious calls; and here in the United States, CNN broadcast how the damaged handsets found near the San Bernardino shootings in December last year helped the FBI track a confidante.7 Such detailed coverage of terrorism investigations raise concerns about whether the media goes too far in reporting police findings that may be of some help to bloodthirsty fundamentalists.8
Most of the particulars of terrorist investigations that appear in the news are obtained at press conferences called by the authorities or through media inquiries to official agencies. Yet without the megaphone effect provided by the mass media, this information would not be so readily accessible to radical organizations and individuals planning to carry out lone-wolf assaults.
Even when the media praises security forces' efforts to prevent carnage, it could be hinting to radicalized minds how not to repeat their peers' mistakes. "Failed or foiled terrorist plots may also receive increased news coverage with an emphasis on how authorities were able to successfully thwart tragedy and protect the public," said Jeff Gruenewald, assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University.9
The media business is primarily driven by ratings and advertisement revenue. (Of course, public news networks are less driven by the latter but are equally dependent on the former). The media's readiness to focus on terror-related developments will continue for as long as journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences.10
The Notable Double Standards of the Western Media
To investigate media bias in its coverage of terrorism, sociologist and lawyer Sean Darling-Hammond collected data on the media coverage in English of each of the over 300 reported incidents of terrorism reported on in 2015. His study found that in the two months following terrorist attacks in three major cities in November, there were 392 articles about the attack in Baghdad; 1,292 articles about the one in Beirut; but over 21,000 about the widely-reported attack in Paris.11
The wars and turmoil in the Middle East, along with periodic massacres taking place in other of the world's hotspots, have caused a 'horror fatigue' in our media when it comes to these regions. Terrorist acts in Western Europe and North America are still a relatively unusual occurrence, so broadcasters and publications deploy the bulk of their resources to cover these tragedies. The media also know that its viewers and readers are more likely to relate and indentify with, to put it plainly, victims who look more like them.
The Need for Self-Restraint, but not China-style Censorship
Global news organizations must strike a difficult balance. They must be able to perform their professional duty of informing the public while also making sure that terrorists do not benefit from their work. To do that, a degree of self-restraint and greater editorial discretion—a 'voluntary code of conduct'—would redress some of the flaws of the media's reaction to terrorism.
Today, several governments around the world harshly restrain private media (let alone public news networks) from reporting on terrorism. Two notorious cases are Russia and China and their imposed limits on media coverage of terrorist acts. These restrictions are manifestly ill-advised and needless to say, have no place in free societies. Media outlets in authoritarian countries may have some leeway to cover terrorism, but newsrooms often exercise self-censorship to avoid government retaliation in the form of penalties, license-stripping, legal persecution, harassment, or much worse. Self-censorship is a loaded term that should be used only when media outlets omit to report on terrorism because they are afraid of government reprisals. That is not the case in most liberal and democratic regimes.
The journalistic profession is rooted in the people's right to know. Free speech is one of the foundations of our democracies, so any kind of imposed regulation diluting our free media will weaken the public's confidence in the integrity of news networks. Moreover, paying no attention to acts of terror could make terrorists even more violent, as they would see a need to stage yet gorier attacks to bring back the coverage of the global media.
The kind of self-restraint advocated here is one that moves the journalistic profession away from broadcasting and publishing sensationalist elements of the plans and atrocities of extremists, and reflects on the enormous influence it has in society before covering the propaganda of fundamentalists for the sake of boosting audience ratings.
The Power of Contextualizing: Why Did They Do This to Us?
"There has been a century of British, French and American coups, bombings and invasions that is almost never mentioned or linked to attacks on the West," pointed out Joe Lauria, former Wall Street Journal United Nations correspondent in an email exchange with this author. As a result, only a fraction of the wider public is aware of the historical, geopolitical, and social grievances that fuel extremists' loathing towards the societies and governments that they target.
The quality media (as opposed to the more popular, intrinsically sensationalist news organizations like tabloid newspapers) should step up its reporting standards and underline the root causes—not the twisted motives put forward by terrorists in their propaganda—that make fundamentalists kill civilians. "To explain why these attacks happen is not to condone or justify terrorist outrages against innocent civilians," wrote Lauria in a recent article.12
For starters, news editors must reconsider the terminology used to describe militant organizations. By highlighting certain characteristics and downplaying others, the media frames terrorism in a way that helps or distorts the public's understanding of terrorism. Some expressions, concepts, and analogies play into the hands of terrorists.13
The best example of this is the widespread use of the term 'Islamic terrorism,' a phrase that attaches the legitimacy of the world's second largest religion to the unspeakable crimes committed by militant groups like Daesh. Rupert Murdoch, arguably the world's most powerful media mogul, used to mock Obama for his refusal to label Daesh's terrorism as 'Islamic.'14 It is unquestionable that the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims despise the barbarism practiced by fundamentalist formations like Daesh, al-Qaeda, and some of their affiliates like Boko Haram or al-Shabaab. The mass media cannot fall into the trap of linking the murderous ideology of these groups with the faith that guides the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Fairer alternatives would be terrorism in the name of Islam, or simply the use of the designation of the terrorist group as a prefix (e.g. Daesh terrorism, al-Qaeda terrorism etc).
The Responsibility to Inform Responsibly
Aware of these 'old bad habits', a number of leading global media organizations are already trying to address previous shortcomings. In its "Terrorism, Use of language when Reporting Guidelines," the BBC acknowledges that its "credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments."15 In the same vein, Reuters' "Handbook of Journalism" states how it reporters should "aim for a dispassionate use of language so that individuals, organizations and governments can make their own judgment on the basis of facts."16
As we have seen, the way the media carries out its reporting of terrorist attacks amplifies the messages of fundamentalists to a global audience, helping militants grow their pool of sympathizers and militants and instilling fear in the general public, often resulting in a backlash against Muslims. Insofar as newsrooms treat violence as big news—whereas stability and order are not—the media is poised to continue being an unintentional yet effective component of terrorist machinations. It is up to those of us who report the news to be more thoughtful about the heavy responsibility we bear.
1 Quoted in "The Aftermath of the Paris Attacks Is a Time to Grieve, Not Fear Monger." Sam Corey, Huffington Post, 11/14/2015
2 How the changing media is changing terrorism. Jason Burke, The Guardian," 02/24/2016
3 "How the changing media is changing terrorism." Jason Burke, The Guardian, 02/24/2016
4 "How sensationalist TV stories on terrorism make Americans more hawkish." Shana Gadarian, The Washington Post, 10/09/2014
5Colombia University Press. Inside Terrorism, Bruce Hoffman, 2006.
6 Quoted in Terrorism and the Media. Markdanner.com, 10/1984
7 San Bernardino shooting investigated as 'act of terrorism. CNN, 12/05/2015
8 Does the media say too much when reporting on terrorism? Javier Delgado Rivera, OpenDemocracy 01/06/2016
10 How sensationalist TV stories on terrorism make Americans more hawkish. Shana Gadarian, The Washington Post, 10/09/2014
11 Lives Fit for Print: Exposing Media Bias in Coverage of Terrorism. Sean Darling-Hammond, The Nation; 01/13/2016
12 Why We're Never Told Why We're Attacked. Joe Lauria, Consortium News, 04/09/2016
13 Lessons Learnt. Terrorism and the Media. Alexander Spencer, Arts and Humanities Research Council, 03/2012
14 The dangers of labeling terrorism. Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 02/23/2016
15 BBC's Guidance. Terrorism, Use of Language When Reporting. Retrieved on 05/12/2016
16 Reuters' Handbook of Journalism. Retrieved on 05/12/2016