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The relationship of terrorism and the media

Around the Bataclan, Paris, November 2015. 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 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. 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 the relationship of terrorism and the media.

The amount, focus, and tone of news coverage of terrorism can help stir the relationship of terrorism and the media 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: 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.

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.

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: 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. 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. 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.

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.

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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.

  1. I also do not put much stock in intervening with well-meaning outreach programs or removing propaganda.
  2. These restrictions are manifestly ill-advised and needless to say, have no place in free societies. To summarise briefly on the symbiotic nature of the relationship between terrorists and the media, the recent history of terrorism in many democratic countries vividly demonstrates that terrorists do thrive on the oxygen of publicity, and it is foolish to deny this.
  3. Their penchant for using images is vividly exemplified by the recording of beheading videos.
  4. Social media has been criticised for creating echo chambers for vulnerable people who watch emotionally provocative videos.

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.

The ‘perverse, symbiotic relationship’ between terrorism and the media

That is not the case in most liberal and democratic regimes. The journalistic profession is the relationship of terrorism and the media 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: 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.

By highlighting certain characteristics and downplaying others, the media frames terrorism in a way that helps or distorts the public's understanding of terrorism.

The Symbiotic Relationship between Western Media and Terrorism

Some expressions, concepts, and analogies play into the hands of terrorists. Rupert Murdoch, arguably the world's most powerful media mogul, used to mock Obama for his refusal to label Daesh's terrorism as 'Islamic.


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.

Daesh terrorism, al-Qaeda terrorism etc.

  1. At this point, I wondered why some mainstream TV networks were sticking with their rolling coverage.
  2. The media performs several critical functions for society. Spend some time following the account, and you realize that you're dealing with a real human being with real ideas—albeit boastful, hypocritical, violent ideas.
  3. To summarise briefly on the symbiotic nature of the relationship between terrorists and the media, the recent history of terrorism in many democratic countries vividly demonstrates that terrorists do thrive on the oxygen of publicity, and it is foolish to deny this. The videos of the brutal beheadings are both posted online by ISIS, where they can be viewed by anyone using their own discretion, and sent to government officials as threats.
  4. However this picture is complicated as a May 2016 article in the Journal of Terrorism Research found that resurgent accounts acquire an average median of 43. Thirdly, media coverage of terrorism inspires the phenomenon of copy-cat terrorism.
  5. Racism and xenophobia are latent in all societies, but in some European countries they feature blatantly as some politicians exploit people's fears and prejudices for short-term electoral gains. It is because of the availability bias that perceptions of risk may be in error.

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.

Terrorism and social media

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.