Breaking News: terrorism and the news media — I | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

Breaking News: terrorism and the news media — I

Pakistan Press Foundation

To remain morally neutral and objective towards terrorism and to sympathise with terrorist acts is to betray ethics and morality

While terrorism spread inside and outside Pakistan well before 9/11, it became an even more popular weapon since 9/11. Examining reasons, it can be argued that media might be a vector of transmission that can precipitate its spread. Considering the publicity success of the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of al Qaeda and the organisation’s supporters and sympathisers, the likelihood of spectacular homicide-suicide terrorist attacks have become the most attractive model for acts of terrorism in one form or the other. Just to emphasise the point, while the flying-of-commercial-airliners-into-buildings scenario on a similar scale has not been repeated so far, there have been many spectacular homicide-suicide terrorist attacks since 9/11 in different countries and continents.

Contagion refers to a form of copycat crime, whereby violence-prone individuals and groups imitate forms of violence attractive to them, based on examples usually popularised by mass media. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, Palestinian terrorists staged a number of spectacular hijackings of commercial airliners, exploited the often-prolonged hostage situations to win massive news coverage for their political grievances, and appeared to inspire other groups to follow their example. Although terrorism scholars, government officials and journalists have analysed the question of mass-mediated contagion for decades, they have arrived at different conclusions. Because of significant advances in communication and information technology, and changes in the global media landscape during the last decade or so, the argument surrounding contagion theories can be reconsidered and it contends that various types of media are indeed important carriers of the virus of hate and terrorism.

Contagion is possible at two levels, and can happen in two ways. On one level, a group might copy a particular terrorist technique, and on another level a group might copy a general terrorist strategy. Either of these might happen directly or indirectly. All these forms of contagion take place. The primary form, however, is the adoption of a general terrorist strategy without direct contact. All other forms of contagion are secondary to this. It is hardly surprising that contagion effects tend to be far stronger among those individuals and groups that share the cultural and religious background of organisations and leaders with inspirational ideologies. The terror networks of the 21st century are becoming more fluid, independent, and unpredictable entities than their more structured forebearers. The present threat has evolved from a structured group of terrorist masterminds controlling vast resources and issuing commands, to a multitude of informal local groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These homegrown militants form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.

In the first decade of the new millennium the Internet has become the agent of virtual inspirational contagion spread by a multitude of extremist websites with chat rooms and message boards that condition and inspire especially vulnerable young men. But other kinds of ideologies of hate and terror are also disseminated via old and new media and communication technologies. There can be little doubt that the inspirational virus is particularly potent when diffused through media forms that are not subject to checks by the traditional media gatekeepers. It is for this reason that inspirational contagion spreads faster and further via books, CDs, and, of course, the Internet.

Quantitative analysis of media reporting (or non-reporting) of terrorist incidents has yielded considerable evidence of a contagion effect wrought by coverage. Schmid and de Graaf concluded in their study Violence as Communication: “The media can provide the potential terrorist with all the ingredients that are necessary to engage in this type of violence. They can reduce inhibitions against the use of violence, they can offer models and know-how to potential terrorists and they can motivate them in various ways.” Just as the media-terrorism connection is embraced or contested by communication scholars, there are also dissenting voices that have challenged the strong effects position.

Mass media reports are the most likely sources of information about the efficacy of terror methods and thus important factors in the diffusion of terrorist tactics. Analysts recognise that publicity provided by the news media was a contributory factor in terrorists’ decision to imitate terrorist methods that were effective. During the past few years there have been many instances in which media coverage of terrorist events was problematic and irresponsible, evoking public criticism and antagonising the authorities. Through close scrutiny of irresponsible actions of some private TV channels in crisis situations it is crucial that important lessons should be learned, indicating the need to develop a set of guidelines for responsible media coverage of terror. One might think that in this triangle of government, media and terrorists the media would side with the government in the fight against terror. But this is not always be the case. Today’s terrorists are well aware of the power of the media and manipulate it to their own advantage and need. By giving unusual events extensive coverage, the mass media would evoke the notion: “You cannot be revolutionary without a colour TV: it’s as necessary as a gun.”

Terrorists should be explicitly condemned for their deeds by all who care about the underlying values of democracy: not harming and granting respect to others. Terrorism, by definition, runs counter to these underlying values. Acts of terror are newsworthy, but when the media report on terrorists, journalists do not have to view themselves as detached observers; they should not only transmit a truthful account of “what’s out there”. Instead, they may feel free to make moral judgments.

Terrorism is conceived as inhuman, insensitive to human life, cruel and arbitrary. To remain morally neutral and objective towards terrorism and to sympathise with terrorist acts is to betray ethics and morality.

There is a delicate relationship between terrorists and the media. Free speech and free media — the basic instruments (many would say values) of every democracy — provide terrorists the publicity they need to inform the public about their operations and goals. The media have been accused of projecting the terrorists’ fear and it seems that some of them are inadvertently helping terrorists orchestrate a horrifying drama in which the terrorists and their victims are the main actors, creating a spectacle of tension and agony.

(To be continued)

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

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