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11 August 2016

What is the best way of reporting on deep-rooted, resilient, global terrorism, carried out by killers who are every bit as media-savvy as they are cold-blooded? Philip Seib looks at why explaining terrorism is not justifying terrorism. 

Terrorists want to terrorise. Their attacks may kill thousands, but they plant terror within the hearts of millions. Terrorist groups rely on various kinds of messaging – some self-generated, some through commercial media – to capture the spotlight and portray themselves as ferocious champions of their cause.

That’s why it may have seemed useful for a number of French news organisations to recently declare that they would, in the words of Le Monde, “no longer publish photographs of the perpetrators of killings to avoid the potential effect of posthumous glorification.” Some other French media adopted similar policies, while others labelled this approach “self-censorship” that denied the public information about important, albeit heinous, events.

This debate brings to mind British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s call in 1985 to starve terrorists “of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” She suggested that while an aeroplane hijacking – terrorists’ favourite tactic at that time – was in progress, the news media should “not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted.

In advancing that idea, Thatcher underestimated both the media savvy and cold-bloodedness of terrorist groups. If news media imposed a coverage blackout on a terrorist “event,” the terrorists could raise their level of criminality – such as by killing hostages – until news organisations felt compelled to cover them. And today, in the era of social media, conventional news organisations’ coverage decisions are of limited relevance in getting information to global audiences. Imposing a true “news blackout” is not feasible because so many venues exist through which information may be disseminated.

Overall, terrorist leaders understand the news media better than most journalists understand terrorism. Add to this the proficiency of groups such as Islamic State in using social media and other web-based tools, and it becomes clear that terrorist organisations can at least hold their own on media battlegrounds.

Another factor in favour of publishing photographs of terrorists is that they could lead to useful tips to law enforcement agencies from news consumers who recognise the people in the photos.

All in all, the effort to prevent “glorification” of terrorists is well-intentioned but misguided. News media efforts should be directed toward educating the public (and journalists themselves) in more sophisticated ways about the nature of terrorism, its causes, as well as its blood-soaked tactics.

Explaining terrorism is not justifying terrorism, but it is easy for news organisations to be swept up in the emotional reaction to a terror attack or to be wary of trying to sail against the current of angry public opinion. Rare are the exceptions. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, Susan Sontag wrote in The New Yorker that those “licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world,’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”

Such viewpoints tend to be disparaged and marginalised. News organisations are sensitive to the opinions of their audience and their advertisers, especially when emotion-driven, and so are likely to avoid contrarian probing. That is good for business, if not good for journalism.

As terrorism becomes recognised as more than just a transient phenomenon, honest debate about its causes will be essential in devising appropriate responses. To date, much news coverage of terrorism has gravitated toward easy-to-understand quantification: Islamic State has lost 50 per cent of the territory it held in Iraq; its fighting force has shrunk from 31,000 to 25,000; and so on. Aside from such numbers being almost impossible to verify, they are superficial. Why have terrorists been able to recruit tens of thousands of fighters; what makes these young Muslims so willing to kill and be killed? How has Islamic State been able to establish itself in Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? Answers to such questions require careful analysis of social, political, religious and other factors that do not lend themselves to succinct headlines.

Terrorism today is much more than unconnected acts by random outlaw bands that can be eradicated through police and military action. It is a phenomenon with deep roots and demonstrated resilience, and to truly serve the public journalists should treat it as such.

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Seib, Philip. 2016. "Covering Terrorism - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.