How terrorists exploit news media



August 18th, 2008


The following is based on a talk given to General Paper teachers at a seminar organised by the Ministry of Education on 13 August 2008.

There have been “secret wars”, like the American bombing of Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s, and wars that perpetrators probably wish could be kept secret, like the current Russian aggression in Georgia. In contrast, “secret terrorism” is an oxymoron. Terrorists don’t conquer territory or defeat enemies militarily; they depend entirely on publicity to amplify the psychological effect of their actions.

Terrorist acts, therefore, are always staged as media events. They are designed to exploit the standard operating procedures of news media – in particular the touchstones of “newsworthiness” that media routinely apply when deciding what to report and how prominently. Professional journalists around the world use the same broad criteria: for example, they gravitate towards events that are unusual and have a big impact within a compressed time. These criteria explain why global warming, a long drawn-out process of large but creeping change, took decades to get the media attention it deserved. And, it explains why attention-craving terrorists use bombs. If news were defined differently, such that slow, dispersed deaths attracted more media attention and provoked more shock and horror, terrorists would not be ramming planes into buildings; they would perhaps be distributing free cigarettes.

The close nexus between terrorism and news should make us consider how media coverage affects our handling of this risk. The risk of terrorist attack cannot be totally eradicated; it can only be minimised and managed. Managing risk is always about careful assessments and trade-offs. Terrorism is not the only threat to Singapore’s security or law and order, so the authorities need to balance their response to terrorist threats with other jobs that need to be done. More importantly, society also needs to get on with life. For example, even though Mas Selamat Kastari was Singapore’s most wanted man, it would have been overkill to, say, impose a dusk-to-dawn nationwide curfew or close all the borders. At a certain point, the cure becomes worse than the disease. Identifying that point requires a clear head, and sensational coverage of terrorism does not necessarily help the process.

Note, for example, the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which there were 52 fatalities. In Britain the same year, road accidents claimed 61 lives in a typical week. In the United States, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks killed 2,974 innocents. In the same year, the country suffered 10 times as many gun-related deaths: 29,573 to be exact. The number of tobacco-related deaths in a single day around the world is estimated to be 14,000. In other words, the tobacco industry is guilty of four and a half 9/11s every day. These comparisons are not to suggest that resources should be diverted from the war on terrorism towards a war on tobacco. But, they should remind us that the media are selective in the kinds of risk they highlight. Today, experts regard global water security as one of the most serious threats facing humankind, but you would not guess it looking at news coverage.

Another problem with sensationalist media coverage of terrorist acts is that it plays directly into the hands of the terrorists. The perpetrators do not have the means to conquer lands physically or to defeat armies militarily. Their attacks are relatively small scale compared with conventional warfare, but they hope that the psychological blow will weaken their enemies. For this reason, a society’s response after a terrorist attack is hugely significant, and this is where the media play a massive role. When it comes to terrorism, journalists cannot claim to be mere reporters or detached observers faithfully recording the news. This is a naive view, because, as I’ve pointed out, terrorists deliberately exploit journalism’s standard operating procedures: they pick sensational methods precisely because these methods attract media attention. Like it or not, journalism is an unwitting partner of terrorism.

Obviously, the solution is not to black out news of terrorist acts. Such a policy can make things even worse, allowing rumours to spread that may be even more damaging than the facts. Rather, the media need to guard against overstating the effects of a terrorist hit, because such overstatement can be self-fulfilling. Just as responsible business journalists are careful not to talk down a stock or a whole economy with exaggerated claims of a downturn, so too responsible coverage of terrorism requires a measured approach. When The Straits Times covered the 2005 London bombings, its first two days of headlines were largely negative, suggesting that London had been brought to its knees.

The BBC’s coverage was quite different: without underplaying the horror, its stories emphasised Londoners’ cohesiveness and resilience. Which account was accurate? Either could be justified by the facts: yes, there is bound to be panic and despair after an attack; but there is also invariably strength and community spiritedness. I would argue that news media have a responsibility to go out of their way to show that cities are not totally terrorised by acts of terror.

The news media also need to invest in community cohesion. At present, definitions of news predispose the media to highlight bad news about inter-ethnic relations. Racial and religious conflict is treated as newsworthy; harmony is not. At present, it is easier for the 1% of religious extremists to make headlines than for the 99% of believers in the mainstream. This bias for the negative is extremely damaging because readers and viewers do not constantly remind themselves that the media are not mirrors on reality. There is therefore a real risk that consistent and long-term exposure to negative portrayals of inter-ethnic relations around the world will cultivate a public that is deeply suspicious and pessimistic about the prospects for multi-cultural living. Such a public will not be inclined to invest in tolerance and peace. Taught only to fear their neighbours, people are more likely to respond to a terrorist attack with communal instincts.

Again, the solution is not to invent positive stories out of thin air. It is a matter of tuning one’s radar to the stories that are already out there, inspiring stories about inter-faith projects and inter-communal activities showing that it is quite possible for people in a cosmopolitan city to build trust. If such stories do not meet the current definition of “news”, then journalists should tweak their touchstones and find creative ways to bring them into the news. The media are accustomed to giving more importance to high-impact stories; they should also find impactful ways to tell important stories.

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