Breaking news: terrorism and news media — II -
Pakistan Press Foundation

Breaking news: terrorism and news media — II

Pakistan Press Foundation

Terrorists, news anchors, and media experts share the view that those whose names make the headlines have power

Media sometimes do not merely report the horror of terror. They become part of it, adding to the drama. Some scholars speak of the ‘theatre of terror’. At the heart of the theatre metaphor is the audience. The media personnel are a bit like drama critics who convey information to the public. Furthermore, like good drama critics, the media also interpret the event. The slant they give by deciding what to report and how to report it can create a climate of public support, apathy, or anger. By their theatrics, the insurgent terrorists serve the audience-attracting needs of the mass media, and since the media care primarily about holding the attention of the audience, this symbiosis is beneficial for both. However, we all know terrorism is not theatre and terrorism concerns real people, with concrete fears, who wish to go on with their lives without being coerced into becoming victims.

Terrorists, news anchors, and media experts share the view that those whose names make the headlines have power. Getting one’s name on the front page and being included in prime-time electronic news both constitute a major political achievement. Modern terrorists seek access to the media by committing acts that closely fit news agencies’ definitions of news break: being timely and unique, involving adventure or having entertainment value, and affecting the lives of those being informed. It can be argued that representation in the media gives an idea, a cause, and a sense of public identity, importance, and relevance. No movement can flourish without some visibility and this is especially true when it is weak. Here, media access might be its major, and sometimes the sole significant asset.

Besides not publishing information that might jeopardise human life, another guideline the media should adopt is not to hinder government activities to forestall and curb terrorism. It is never suggested that the media should not report such events. Of course they should, but in a less exaggerated, graphic manner, with more reflection and thought. It is important that editors deciding how to cover such events contemplate a standard of magnitude, decency, and responsible journalism.

Sensationalism is at its best when television stations broadcast grisly scenes. After the Blue Area, Islamabad hostage crisis, most private TV channels dedicated long hours to bring to citizens’ homes pictures from the hostage and arrest scenes without considering the effects of needless repetition on viewers. Was it prudent to bring live pictures from the scene when reporters could only rehash what they had said some minutes earlier? Granted that the public wishes to know the situation and would like to see pictures from the event. Censorship is not the issue. Instead, balance and consideration are at issue. Sometimes it seemed that editors and reporters confused quantity with quality, thinking that more pictures would compensate for a lack of quality information and new insights.

The media are expected not simply to report whatever the terrorists are saying. It is the media’s duty to exercise some judgment and scrutinise the terrorists’ messages. The media need not play into the hands of terrorism, serving their interests and their political agenda. For the prime reason of not endangering lives, the media should refrain from live coverage of terrorist events. This is especially true when attempts are carried out to free hostages. Live media coverage showing the security forces preparing to plan might risk the entire operation and put success in jeopardy. The terrorists might be attentive to media coverage and hear and even see the rescue operation while in progress. Their reaction might be deadly. Furthermore, hostages might hear about the plans, become alarmed and confused, and subsequently act in a way that would jeopardise the operation. What is suggested is not a complete shutting off of the media. Instead, delayed coverage is suggested so as not to risk human lives.

Hard to conclude but when it comes to international and domestic terrorism, various kinds of media figure quite strongly in both tactical and inspirational contagion. While the Internet has moved centre-stage in this respect during the last two decades, the targets of terrorism have not been able to effectively counter the mass-mediated virus of this form of terrorist violence.


The writer is a member of the Diplomate American Board of Medical Psychotherapists Dip.Soc Studies, Member Int’l Association of Forensic Criminologists, Associate Professor Psychiatry and Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist at the Huntercombe Group United Kingdom. He can be reached at

Daily Times