Terrorism in the Media
Bergh & Lipscomb (1904) were entirely right when concluded the following: “Where the press is free… all is safe.” Up until now, a free press is considered one of the prerequisites of any democratic society; but what about if the media content is influenced by the organization that disturbs that safety. In this case, it means any terrorist organization, which advances its own political goals by spreading the fear.
Undoubtedly, in most of the cases, terrorist attacks are localized acts that affect certain objects or people. However, their main goal is to spread the word in order to bring the message of fear to a wider audience, apart from those whom they plan to attack. The media, in this case, plays a crucial role in helping terrorists in achieving their goal by spreading those fearful terrorist messages.
This research is an attempt to understand the questions concerning interconnections between the media and terrorism. Before proceeding any further, it is essential to analyze first how the term ‘terrorism’ is presented and understood by various scholars.
Hocking noted that terrorism is a social construction. The scientist claims that once an action has been given such a label, it is impossible to treat it in a value-neutral manner. The scholar also downplays the centrality of the media in terrorism. Citing Stohl’s list of ‘eight myths’ found in the orthodox literature on terrorism, she adds her ninth one: “terrorism depends for its success on media coverage.”
The eight Stohl’s myths include the following: the exclusive antigovernmental of terrorism is its chaotic purpose, the madness of terrorists, the prevalence of their criminal activities compared to political, and terrorism as an indicator of insurgent violence. The author also mentions governments’ actions, which always oppose nongovernmental terrorism, the relations of terrorism to internal political conditions, and the futility of the political strategy of the terrorists.
At the same time, there is another group of scholars, who pointed out the prejudices of the term ‘terrorism’ usage. They claim that it undermines objective and effective research into the phenomenon because the “discourse is inherent… hostile regarding its research subject,” it disposes of the researcher to preconceived attitudes and views.
Talking about the official definitions, The General Assembly of the United Nations offered an exceptionally serviceable definition. They define terrorism as criminal acts that are calculated or intended to provoke a state of terror in a group of persons or the general public, … for political purposes…whatever the considerations of an ideological, philosophical, political, religious, racial, ethnic or other nature that may be invoked to justify them Biernatzki notes, despite the fact that UN definition ambiguity remains, the limitation of terror to “criminal acts” seems to rule out acts by governments, which are the authorities who determine, when an act is “criminal” and when it is not. He states that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) definition possesses a similar limitation in the use of the word “unlawful”: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence or force against individuals or certain property to intimidate… the population, a government, or any segment thereof, in support of social or political objectives.”
Biernatzki argues that the failure of all those abovementioned definitions lies within the reason that government-sponsored terrorism “seems to overlook the most prominent historical use of the term… to describe the coercive policy of the French Revolutionary government in the 1790s”. He adds, “In historical context, “The Terror” invariably refers to the revolutionary government’s terrorism in the period from March 1793 to July 1794”.
Martin compares terrorism to propaganda while naming it as a form of persuasive communication. He states that because of a couple of the following reasons: in their intent, both of them are persuasive, rather than informative, both can be expressed in nonverbal and verbal terms, and both of them are exceptionally pejorative in connotation.
When talking about the mass media, it is essential to point out that they may quote someone using “terror” or “terrorism” means an act, which is performed by a certain group. Moreover, the press usually never uses those terms in headlines not only when it disapproves certain acts, but also when it does not have any sympathy for criminals.
Hoffman argues on terrorist attacks stating that: “without the coverage of the media, the act’s impact remains narrowly confined to the immediate victim(s) of the attack, rather than reaching the wider audience at whom the violence of terrorists is actually aimed.” Nacos agrees with him stating that without having solid news coverage, the terrorist act resembles the thought from the proverb about the tree falling in the forest: “if no one learned of an incident, it would be as if it had not occurred.”
Ganor makes his argument even stronger:
Terrorists are not necessarily interested in the deaths of three, or thirty – or even of three thousand – people. They rather allow the imagination of the target population to do their work for themselves. In fact, it is very conjectural for the terrorists to attain their goals without carrying out even a single attack; the desired panic could be produced by the continuous broadcast of threats and declarations – by the radio and TV interviews, videos and all the familiar methods of psychological warfare” (Ganor, 2002).
It is also crucial to remember that apart from these definitions, there are certain acts, which may still qualify as terrorism by most of the standards. For example, the article about politicians and nationalists that are concerned with settling old scores connected to old Turkish-Armenian relations from the Soviet times.
As state terrorism violates the legitimacy contingency, it is considered to be another form of political threat of violence. State terrorism may be also directed by one state against another, and the early days of the Iran-Iraq war. The purpose of state terrorism is the control of the population through its intimidation.
This term is sometimes applied to revolutionary governments. For example, terrorism was the principal of the Russian revolutionaries’ instrumentality of their group protection. It created diversions by drawing attention to certain incidents, for example, the martyrdom of a member as a means of recruiting new members.
It is interesting to look at the relations between the media and terrorists from two points of view; namely, how the media using terrorists and vice versa. It is also significant to observe how the media, in this case, affects the public and government.
There are many ideas that the media are working for the purposes of terroristic groups. Scheufele & Tewksbury present media theories concerning the capabilities of this phenomenon. Framing and agenda setting are two of the most significant ones.
The theory of framing is about the way of presentation of any news item, and how it influences the society and can be understood or interpreted by certain audience. As for the agenda-setting, this theory is about the attention that the media pays to a certain phenomenon, thus, the public attributes are highly significant in this case.
It is a well-known fact that terrorists would like to be on the minds of their audience, benefiting from this influence as much as possible. Moreover, all those terrorists want is that the audience is rather large. Many agree that they have learned how to exploit modus operandi of the media in order to maximize their audience. Alexander, Carlton, & Wilkinson argue about three purposes that terrorist groups have when interacting with the media; they are legitimacy, recognition, and attention.
Some of the scholars also focus their attention on the psychological interactions between the media and terrorists. According to Paletz & Vinson, the main terrorists’ interests, which make them utilize the media enemies, for example, government, are gaining sympathy and demonstrating strength, while creating chaos and fear. The perfect example of these insurgencies can be Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian guerrilla. Bandura also notes another point regarding the usage of media: he says that it is also being used for intimidation of the public, arousal of sympathy and moral justification.
Nacos, Bloch-Elkon, & Shapiro determine the four general media-dependent objectives, which terrorists have when they threaten or strike to commit a violent act. Gaining attention to create fear to make the audience aware of their prospective act, and, in this way, to condition their target victim (either population or government) for intimidation is their first goal. The recognition of the terrorist organization’s motives is the second goal as they try to make people think about why they are doing those attacks. The third objective is gaining the sympathy and even respect of those whom they plan to attack. Moreover, the last goal is to obtain a media treatment and status similar to the one of… political actors.”
There may be various objectives for each terrorist group in using the media. In some of the cases, one objective can be more significant as compared to the other. In addition, for some organizations, one of those objectives may not be an issue at all, for others it can be added, and whenever there is a case of an added objective, the first one would not necessarily be the crucial one.
By gaining attention, terrorists try to be present in the media for as long as possible; their main aim is to become well known to the public. When attempting to influence the media, they have an impact on the audience by spreading the word on the existence of their organization. When the terrorists get the audience’s attention, people become aware of their existence and methods they might use to reach their group or concrete target. It is also essential to remember that gaining this attention, they are doing their propaganda by proxy.
Creating fear among the target population is an essential element in any terrorists’ agenda. Their main strategy is to gain attention by intimidating the audience to the extent that even the threat of the possibility of becoming a terrorist violence victim is enough to create such fear. Thus, such a maneuver becomes an efficient instrument in affecting the policy and decision- making processes.
There are many examples, which depict that gaining attention by awareness through the media is one of the most pivotal aspects of the strategy of terroristic groups. Nacos et al. provide the example of the attacks on the London transit system, which demonstrates how the terrorists try to reach their first objective. Furthermore, the attacks during the G-8 summit, which took place in Scotland, can be remembered as well.
Another notable example would be the terrorist attack of 1972in Munich when people were watching the Olympic Games in that city. This event gathered a large number of broadcast and newspaper journalists. Black September, a well-known Palestinian terrorist organization, conducted the ignominious attack on Israeli athletes that were present in the Olympic camp.
That rescue attempt that was closely covered by all of the media present, and watched by millions of people from all over the world. The terrorists were able to monopolize the attention of the audience of global television, whose aim was to come and enjoy watching the Games.
Nacos also mentions that approximately 800 million people watched the events as they unfolded. In addition, she claims that the Black September organization chose Munich Olympic Games because the equipment and personnel along with corresponding technology were to guarantee a television drama, which they had never witnessed before in the global arena.”
Undoubtedly, the strategies that capture the attention and wide awareness of the audience never happen by chance. Hoffman is positive that those actions are carefully designed by terrorists’ “spin doctors”. He presents the example of the 1985 year: a hijacking of a TWA airplane by a Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization. He argues that some of the members of the group are the media studies graduates from various American colleges, and they regularly met at the house of the leader of their organization in order to conduct those “spin doctoring” tactics.
Liebes & Kampf argue that people tend to get used to violence to a certain extent. Thus, they are convinced that low-profile attacks maybe even less of an issue. That results in terrorist spin doctors devising more shocking events or more striking ways to exploit those events in order to keep the attention at the desired level.
At the same time, even if people did not get used to low levels of violence, the largest attacks generally still receive the most attention. Nacos adds to this argument that because the most of the incidents receive the greatest reporting volume, the media critics have made them look much bloodier “in order to satisfy the media’s appetite for such shocking news.”
Talking about why and how the media uses terrorism, it is clear that the answer to the “why” question would be the “viewer ratings”. Undeniably, several other reasons may play a role, as well, and among them is personal involvement or interest of journalists and their social responsibility as the terrorism is news and, thus, it must be covered. At the same time, the main common denominator is the number of viewers that watch terrorist coverage as the subject fascinates people.
It is not a secret that in order to exist, journalists as much as terrorists need the public. As there is a strong connection between ratings and an advertisement income, the more people watch the news, the more money particular channel will make. Therefore, Nacos mentions from this point of view that: “The media are rewarded [for broadcasting terrorism] in that they energize their competition for audience size and circulation – and, thus, for all-important advertising.”
As usual, the audience desires to be captivated by what it watches hears or reads in the media. Ockrent states that “Today, for all of us, and more often than we acknowledge it: the desire to be entertained takes over the need to know.” Such desire leads the audience to focus on human drama and interest rather than various “hard” news stories.
The “lust” for human drama stories can lead to “over-coverage” of terrorist activities. For example, in the early 80s, the American television channels, such as ABC, NBC, and CBS, broadcasted more stories related to terrorism than unemployment, crime, poverty or discrimination stories.
The stories on terrorism are not necessarily focused on the statistics hard or news; they draw more attention to emotional aspects. Depicting the overrepresentation of terrorism in the media, Jenkins claims that there is no difference if ordinary killers vastly exceed murders that are provoked by terrorists… the news media do not allocate space or air time proportionally according to the leading causes of death in the world. News, in general, is about the unusual, the alarming, and the dramatic.
The scholar states that news is not about summing up of information, it is rather anecdotal.
Terrorism generally fits those descriptions exceptionally well: alarming, anecdotal, unusual and dramatic. Moreover, those characteristics can fit even much more than, for instance, traffic accidents or crime.
Talking about an overemphasis on certain terrorism issues, Jenkins confirms, “It has been asserted that the news media report only the sensational aspects of terrorism, the blood, the gore, the horror of the victims.” According to Jenkins, it is true: “As in war, the media, and in particular television, focus on the action and in so doing often present an untrue picture of the intensity of the conflict.”
Considering the effects of the relationship between media, terrorism, public, and government, Laqueur confirms all of the abovementioned ideas: “Terrorists and newspapermen share the assumption that those whose names make the headlines have power.” He states that “Publicity… is important; people pay a great deal of money and go through great lengths to achieve it. But, unless this publicity is translated into something more tangible, it is no more than entertainment.”
At the same time, Hoffman adds about the real issue that it is not about the “relationship itself, which is widely acknowledged to exist, but whether it actually affects public opinion and government decision making… in a way that favors terrorists.” The author is positive that in this case, the answer is more ambiguous and complex as compared to “the conventional wisdom on this subject.”
To sum it up, terrorism has many aspects, which make it a substantially specific subject: it possesses danger, drama, and blood. It has a human tragedy, its heroes, miracle stories; it is both anecdotal and new. Terrorism has a clear division between good and evil; it often has action and shocking footage. All of that led many people who watched the attacks of 9/11 in the media to feel that it was a little bit too surrealistic and even reminded a movie. Frequent media transmissions of that event forced people to watch the same episodes for many-many days after the accident.
The media knows about the effects of terrorism on the audience. Thus, for them, it is a logical choice to focus people’s attention on what they actually want to see. In this case, the news is leaning to the “soft” aspects rather than to “hard” and objective facts.
It is important to remember that it is not only the media that wants high viewer ratings, but terrorists desire that as well. As a result of such ordinary media coverage, on the face of it, the media itself subconsciously, unwillingly and indirectly assists terrorists in achieving their main goals and aims.
The extent of the relationship between terrorism and the media is the brightest example of symbiotic relationship: as terrorists try to use the media to their advantage, and media, at the same time, very happily broadcasts the terrorism-related events. It is all happening not only because it is simply newsworthy, but also because it possesses many of those features, which make it exceedingly attractive to the public and to the media. It is also crucial to add that “government should refrain from censorship unless the media is directly controlled by terrorists or those closely liaised to them.”