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Terrorism and the Media

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4728 words Published: 26th May 2017

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Mass Media has always historically been recognised as newspapers, radio, and television, also dramatic arts, through film and theatre, and books. Since the advent of the Internet, global media has been revolutionised with new ways to broadcast information and the speed at with which that information is conveyed. Terrorism requires media publicity in order that the political message they wish to convey reaches the target audience thus influencing and swaying public opinion. The Media seek to provide information to their audience to meet their need for information and news stories. The more dramatic and spectacular the news coverage then the greater an audience the Media will attract. A greater audience brings intrinsic benefits to the Media. I will discuss the symbiotic relationship between Media and Terrorism and whether it exits and to what degree it is symbiotic. I will also examine how the internet has affected the symbiosis between Terrorism and Media.

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"I am a passionate believer in freedom of speech. I would not support anything which would impinge on aggressive robust freedom of the British press." Nick Clegg, British Deputy Prime Minster (as cited in Chorley, 2012). Nick Clegg made this comment in the wake of the Leveson enquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press. Freedom of the Press has always been part of the foundation of a democratic society; however it is this democratic society that enables the terrorist to deliver their message through the media. "democratic society make the tasks of terrorist propaganda, recruitment, organisation, and the mounting of operations a relatively easy matter" (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 22). As Wilkinson rightly argues a democratic society is an enabler for terrorism to exist, especially in regard to delivering their propaganda and political message. "In late March 2001, three simultaneous car explosions killed twenty-three and injured more than one hundred civilians in southern Russia. If this had happened in the old Soviet Union, the state-controlled mass media probably would not have reported the incident." (Nacos, 2007, p. 36). In the old USSR state-controlled mass media would simply deny the terrorists the propaganda of their attack.

"Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had it right when she proclaimed the publicity is the oxygen of terrorism" (Ibid., p. 36). Nacos correctly reminds us of what Mrs Thatcher said, and it is this "oxygen" that the terrorists seek to obtain when they plan an attack. "without the media's coverage the act's impact is arguably wasted, remaining narrowly confined to the immediate victim(s) of the attack, rather than reaching the wider 'target audience' at whom the terrorists' violence is actually aimed." (Hoffman, 2006, p. 174). Hoffman reinforces that terrorists require publicity form the media. It is clear from the above that terrorism and the media are in some form of relationship. This essay discusses the interactions of the relationship between terrorists and media, if it is symbiotic, and how does advent of the internet affect the relationship.


Defining terrorism has been difficult since it has first been studied. Laqueur states "More than a hundred definitions have been offered (including a few of my own) for the phenomenon." (Laqueur, 1995, p. 5). There are characteristics that can be found in the majority of the definitions and these have been highlighted by Wilkinson:

It is premeditated and designed to create a climate of extreme fear.

It is directed at a wider target than the immediate victims.

It inherently involves attacks on random or symbiotic targets, including civilians.

It is considered by the society, in which it occurs as 'extra normal', that is, in the literal sense it violates the norms regulating disputes, protest and dissent.

It is used primarily, though not exclusively, to influence the political behaviour of government's, communities or specific social groups.(Wilkinson, 2011, p. 1)

These characteristics will define terrorism for the discussions within this essay and specifically the act being premeditated, designed to create a climate of extreme fear, and being directed at a wider target than the immediate victims.

Wilkinson also comments on the meaning of symbiotic "In sociology the term symbiosis is taken to mean relations of mutual dependence between different groups within a community when the groups are unlike each other and their relations are complementary" (Ibid., p. 145). The relationship between terrorism and media will be examined and discussed to assess whether it is mutually dependent and complementary, and if so, does this remain true in the era of internet media.

"The mass media are taken to encompass newspapers, radio and television and other important forms of communications, including books, films, music, theatre and the visual arts." (Ibid., p. 144). Wilkinson defines the meaning of mass media, for the purpose of this essay and discussion For the purposes of this essay I will separate mass media from "new media" technology including the internet.

Terrorist interaction with media

"The Assassin Sect of Shi'a Islam which attempted to sow terror in the Muslim world and Middle Ages, relied upon word of mouth in mosques and market places to relay news of their attacks" (Ibid., p. 144). Wilkinson informs us that terrorists' need to spread the news of their attacks is not a modern phenomenon, but as terrorism has increased, their need for publicity has also. "Without being noticed, in fact, terrorism would not exist. The sheer act of killing does not create a terrorist act: murders and wilful assaults occur with such frequency in most societies that they are scarcely reported in the news media. What makes an act terrorism is that it terrifies. The acts to which we assign that label are deliberate events, bombings and attacks performed at such places and times that they are calculated to be observed. Terrorism without its horrified witnesses would be as pointless as a play without an audience." (Juergensmeyer, 2003, p. 141). Juergensmeyer states that the terrorists need to horrify witnesses, if the act is not sufficiently terrifying then it will not achieve the publicity any further than the initial audience.

Schmid and de Graaf concur, the "immediate victim is merely instrumental, the skin of a drum beaten to achieve a calculated impact on a wider audience. As such, an act of terrorism is in reality an act of communication. For the terrorist the message matters, not the victim" (Schmid and de Graaf, 1982, p. 14). When transmitting this message what are the terrorists trying to achieve?

Nacos argues that there are four media objectives that terrorists seek to achieve when they commit/threaten an act of violence.

  1. First, terrorists want the attention and awareness of various audiences inside and outside their target societies and thereby condition their targets for intimidation.
  2. Second, terrorists want the recognition of their motives. They want the media and the public to explore the question: Why do they attack us?
  3. Third, terrorists want the respect and sympathy of those in whose interest they claim to act.
  4. Fourth, terrorists want a quasi-legitimate status and the same or similar media treatment that legitimate political actors receive. (Nacos, 2007, p. 20)

Nacos has neatly packaged the objectives, not all these objectives will be achieved in every attack by terrorists, but generally they will be trying to achieve the majority of them. On the 12 April 2010, the Real IRA attacked Palace Barracks in Northern Ireland, the Headquarters for the British Security Service in Northern Ireland. The date of the attack was not chosen at random, it was the day that justice and security powers were devolved from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Mark Simpson BBC Northern Ireland Correspondent stated "On a day when a new political era is starting at Stormont, dissident republicans wanted to highlight one of the weaknesses of the peace process - the threat of further violence". (Simpson, 2010). The Real IRA succeeded in achieving media coverage of the incident and took the headlines rather, than the devolution of justice powers. When we examine Nacos objectives we can see that the Real IRA achieved certainly the first three objectives, and the fourth being open to debate if whether it improved their claims to be legitimate political actors.

On 14 June 1985 TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Lebanese Terrorist enroute from Athens to Rome. The flight contained a considerable number of United States citizens. This incident provides a good example of how terrorists optimise their media exposure and how perhaps unwittingly the media played into their hands. Schmid (as cited in Wilkinson, 2011. p. 155) "Schmid observes that National Broadcasting Company (NBC) devoted no less than two thirds of their total news time to the crisis over the fate of the American hostages taken to Beirut throughout the 17 days of the hijacking". The US media brought its considerable might to bare upon the coverage of the drama. The focus of the coverage was on the hostages and their families, which proved detrimental to the Reagan administration "A gross imbalance therefore emerged: "soft," human-interest feature stories predominated (mostly interviews with the hostages and their families), accounting for slightly more than a third of all reports, with fewer than half as many stories addressing "real" issues" (Hoffman, 2006, p. 175).

The media coverage achieved what the terrorists desired, in that the concentrated effort was the safe recovery of the hostages at any cost. "The domestic demand for the release of the TWA Flight 847 hostages placed such pressure on the US government that it led them to press their Israeli allies to release over 700 prisoners demanded by the hostage-takers, thus conceding an enormous political and psychological victory to the terrorists" (Wilkinson 2011, p. 106). The effect that transpired was that terrorism was seen to produce results. As Hoffman states "the most pernicious effect of the crisis was its validation of terrorism as a tactic." (Hoffman, 2006, p. 175). The terrorist manipulation of the media was no coincidence. "According to John Bullock, a British journalist who covered the story, throughout the crisis the terrorists knew exactly what they were doing." (Ibid, p. 176). It can be seen from the above how additional media pressure influenced US foreign policy and ultimately achieved the terrorists' goals.

Do all terrorists seek publicity? "Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path, Peruvian Terrorist Organisation) long remained quite uncommunicative and seemingly uninterested both in the wider media and in creating an underground press through which to broadcast its ideology on a media level" (Wieviorka, 2004, p. 43). Wieviorka argues that The Shining Path terrorist group had "no expectation of any mediation whatsoever on part of the press" (Ibid. p. 43). Wilkinson disagrees with Wieviorka assessment arguing "This category is totally unreal because even for the purpose of creating terror in an intended set of victims, the perpetrator relies on some channel or medium of communication to relay the threat. If there is no aim to instil terror, then the violence is not of a terroristic nature." (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 145). Nacos further highlights that it doesn't matter if the terrorists do not directly seek media coverage "But whether terrorists claim responsibility for their deeds does not matter at all with respect to media coverage." (Nacos 2007, p. 18). The media, if they become aware of the incident, will provide coverage to the public. Nacos further states that most terrorist groups don't just want their terrorist act publicised "They typically want their political causes publicized and their motives discussed. For this to happen the perpetrators do not necessarily have to do the explaining themselves- the media do it for them." (Ibid., p. 21).

It can be seen from the above analysis how terrorists use the media to their advantage and to convey their political message. In the vast majority of terrorist incidents the terrorists rely upon media coverage of their attack to ensure that they reach a wider audience. English aptly summarises the role of the media in the eyes of the terrorists "media provide a crucial amplifier for the terrorists' cause, case and deeds" (English, 2009, p. 44).

Media interaction with terrorists.

I will now discuss why and how the media interact with terrorism. Why the media interacts with terrorism is relatively simple. "a cynical aphorism in the newspaper business holds that 'if it bleeds, it leads.'" (Mueller, 2006, p. 40), this holds true as the media require headline news to attract viewers.

"Media in an open society are in a fiercely competitive market for their audiences, are constantly under pressure to be first with the news and to provide more information" (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 147). It is the drive to attract more viewers that places media under pressure to report terrorist incidents.

A high drama incident is the ideal news story to attract a greater audience, "in the first three weeks of the Tehran Hostage crisis in 1979 all the major television networks achieved an 18 per cent increase in audience rating." (Ibid., p. 150). According to Hamin Mowlana (As cited in Wilkinson 2011, p. 150) "the networks were able to secure, in 1979, an annual increase of £30 million for each percentage point of audience rating increase". From this argument we can see where the advantage for media is in covering such incidents, there is however no suggestion that the media are constantly hoping for a terrorist incident, as outlined by Nacos "While I do not suggest that the news media favour this sort of political violence, it is nevertheless true that terrorist strikes provide what the contemporary media crave most - drama, shock, and tragedy suited to be packaged as human interest news." (Nacos, 2006, p. 81-82). Laqueur further states "It has been said that journalists are terrorists' best friends, because they are willing to give terrorist operations maximum exposure. This is not to say that journalists as a group are sympathetic to terrorists, although it may appear so. It simply means that violence is news, whereas peace and harmony are not. The terrorists need the media, and the media find in terrorism all the ingredients of an exciting story." (Laqueur, 1995, p. 44).

It has been shown why media pay so much attention to terrorist incidents, but is the coverage disproportional to the actual threat that the terrorists pose in comparison to other threats that the public face daily, and thus giving an uneven balance of threat to the public, which in turn may be assisting the terrorists?

Jenkins argues "it makes no difference that ordinary homicides vastly exceed murders caused by terrorists. The news media do not allocate space or air time proportionally according to the leading causes of death in the world." (Jenkins, 1981, p. 2). Jenkins further states "Content analysis of coverage of terrorist incidents in The New York Times and the Times of London shows that the news media provide little context in which the public can judge the events" Ibid., p. 2). Iyengar gives additional evidence "Between 1981 and 1986, more stories were broadcast on terrorism than on poverty, unemployment racial inequality, and crime combined" (Iyengar, 1991, p. 27). The media have the unhealthy habit of being anecdotal rather than factual, skewing reality and the threat. It is my opinion that this only aids the terrorist by inflating the threat that is posed. From the analysis it is evident that terrorism can be overrepresented and overemphasised by the media; this in turn only aids the terrorist in the broadcast of their political message.

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To additionally aggravate the situation is pressure upon media to get the 'Scoop' before competing media channels. As Nacos states "In this competition, terrorists seem to start out with a significant advantage because their violent deeds are a powerful message that commands the mass media's attention and thus that of their target audience(s)." (Nacos, 2007, p. 198). Shpiro states "Speed plays a critical role in global news coverage. While the newsreels of World War II could be edited and censored for several days or even weeks before being publicly screened, the audience of present-day con¬‚icts demands media reaction time measured by hours and even minutes. Media outlets that, for technical, political or ¬nancial reasons, cannot supply the most up-to-date news coverage lose out in a ¬eld saturated by intense competition". (Shpiro, 2002, p. 77). Shprio points out that unless the media outlet gets the story out quickly they will lose to the competition, but does this then affect the coverage? Nacos argues "Given the all-out competition between news organizations, the pressure to present breaking news, the determination to report some new angle although a terrorist situation has not changed, and the tendency to sensationalize even genuinely dramatic situations, the hastily reported and often unverified news is likely to contain inaccuracies, mistakes, and problematic features." (Nacos, 2007, p. 207). We can see from Nacos that there is the possibility of inaccuracies and mistakes to become apparent in the rush to release news, this can potentially influence the true perspective on the incident and ultimately may play into the terrorists' hands.

I have now discussed how terrorist interact with the media and in turn how the media interact with terrorist, I will now discuss whether this relationship is symbiotic.

Is the relationship between media and terrorism symbiotic?

If we take Wilkinson's earlier view of what a symbiotic relationship is then in order for it to exist the relationship must have mutual dependence between terrorism and media and the relationship is complementary.

Hoffman notes that "Clearly, terrorism and the media are bound together in an inherently symbiotic relationship, each feeding off and exploiting the other for its own purposes." (Hoffman, 2006, p.193). Wilkinson also comments that "once terrorist violence is under way, the relationship between the terrorists and the mass media tends inevitably to become symbiotic" (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 145). There is dependence in both cases, the terrorist dependence on the media to publicise the incident, and the media's desire for spectacular news stories to broadcast and attract viewers.

Wieviorka offered a counter argument refuting that terrorism and the media are in a "symbiotic relationship," stating that terrorists relate to the media in any of four different ways, from "pure indifference" to media, through "relative indifference," then to a "media-oriented strategy," and finally to "coercion of the media" (Wieviorka 1988, p. 43, as cited by Wilkinson, 2011, p. 145).

Paul Wilkinson questioned Wieviorka's four categories of the relationship, saying that channels of communication always are used by any terrorist.

The first of Wieviorka's categories is "pure indifference" to any desire to terrorize a population beyond the immediate victim of violence. Wilkinson states that "This category is totally unreal because even for the purpose of creating terror in an intended set of victims, the perpetrator relies on some channel or medium of communication to relay the threat. If there is no aim to instil terror, then the violence is not of a terroristic nature" (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 145).

In Wieviorka's second category "relative indifference" Wilkinson dismisses Wieviorka's argument that terrorists are disinterested with regard to communicating through powerful media when they have other channels already existing to communicate and explain their position. Wilkinson argues that "The kind of channels he lists that 'already exist' are a legal and relatively free press, radio transmitters and centres for free expression such as universities, churches and mosques. But what are these channels that 'already exist' if not alternative media?" (Ibid., 2011, p. 146).

The third category "media-orientated strategy" is the only category the Wieviorka believes that terrorists are actively engaged in a relationship with the media. Wilkinson counter argues that this type of "media-orientated strategy" "in reality it is intrinsic to the very activity of terrorisation that some form of media, however crude, is utilised as an instrument to disseminate the messages of threat and intimidation" (Ibid., 2011. p. 146).

The final category offered by Wieviorka, 'total break' is described by Wilkinson "Wieviorka is referring here to cases where the terrorists come to view the media organisation, editors, journalists and broadcasters as enemies to be punished and destroyed. Those working in the media have often been the targets of terrorist violence" (Ibid., 2011, p .146). Wilkinson dismissed the 'total break' category for the same reason as 'media-orientated strategy'.

It is clear that there is a relationship between terrorism and media, but is it always complementary?

Wilkinson lists a number of incidents where the media irresponsibility aided the terrorists or came very close to aiding them with adverse coverage; Firstly the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, where a news team defied police instructions and filmed the SAS Assault, if this had been broadcast live in would have severely endangered the hostages and rescue team, Secondly the hijacking of a Kuwait airliner in 1988, whilst on the ground at Larnaca Airport, media coverage was so intense a rescue mission was impossible to launch, and finally the media coverage of an IRA trial in 1997 collapsed after media published material that prejudiced a fair trial. (Ibid., 2011, p. 151).

The above examples are not to illustrate that the media consciously aid terrorists, Wilkinson further states "There is no evidence to suggest that the Western-dominated mass media organisations share the political aims of the terrorist organisations, but sophisticated media-wise terrorists can certainly exploit and manipulate the power of the mass media for their own malevolent purpose." (Ibid., 2011, p. 151).

Media attention also brings with it unpredictability for the terrorist organisation, as Wilkinson rightly states, Western-dominated mass media do not share the political ideals of terrorist organisations, therefore are unlikely to give positive coverage of the terrorist incident, Hoffman further points out "While most terrorists certainly crave the attention that the media eagerly provide, the publicity that they receive cuts both ways" (Hoffman, 2006, p. 188). Wilkinson notes "Terrorists like to present themselves as noble Robin Hoods, champions of the oppressed and downtrodden. By showing the savage cruelty of terrorists' violence and the way in which they violate the rights of the innocent, the media can help to shatter this myth." (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 152).

If we break the symbiotic relationship down to the fact that terrorists require coverage and the media require an audience to produce revenue, it is my opinion the symbiosis does clearly exist. If believe this relationship can aid the terrorists, as the analysis has shown, unless the media report is more balanced and less anecdotal.

I will now discuss how the internet may affect the symbiotic relationship.

New media and the symbiotic relationship

For the purpose of this discussion I will limit new media to terrorist use of the internet and the publicising of their attacks. Lumbaca and Gray define the internet as "The internet is an information tool used in namely all parts of the world. The internet has made life a lot simpler for the average person who is looking to earn a degree, engage in commerce exchanges, make purchases, write friends and look up information. Unfortunately while it wields these benefits, this capability is a double-edged sword; these benefits are also open to terrorists. Whether right-winged or left, terrorists view the internet as a powerful too; it is inexpensive, easy to set up and can be found just about anywhere." (Lumbaca, & Gray, 2011, p. 47).

Hoffman informs us that "Few technological innovations have had the impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Beyond any doubt, in a comparatively short span of time, they have revolutionized communications, enabling the rapid (often in real time), pervasive, and-most important-inexpensive exchange of information worldwide." (Hoffman 2006, p. 201).

Weimann contends the internet "is ideal for terrorists-as-communicators: it is decentralized, it cannot be subjected to control or restriction, it is not censored, and it allows access to anyone who wants it" (Weimann, 2006, p. 25). Lumbaca, and Gray, Hoffman, and Weimann point out the distinct advantages the internet and World Wide Web offer to terrorists, namely speed, non-censorship and ready access to anyone who wants it.

So does the advent of the internet and World Wide Web affect the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and media? As discussed earlier in the essay, the terrorists wish to garner as much publicity regarding their attack as possible, Hoffman reinforces this "The overriding objective for the terrorists is to wring every last drop of exposure, publicity, and coercive power from the incident" (Hoffman, 2006, p. 180). With regard to terrorist use of the internet Weimann correctly states that it can be accessed by anyone who wants to, this in my opinion is the key to how the internet affects the symbiotic relationship.

In order for the terrorists to maximise the exposure of their incident they are still somewhat reliant upon mass media to pick up information they place on the internet, this practice by mass media is becoming known as "information laundering" for example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was one of the first jihadist terrorists to optimise the use of the internet and World Wide Web "Zarqawi went straight to the internet, which enabled him to produce graphic videos that would have never been shown on mainstream media" Katz as cited in (Shane, 2006, p. 1). As these videos were breaking news they were picked up by the mainstream media, and reported upon, thus Zarqawi achieved his publicity. The symbiosis between terrorism and mass media is still apparent in the internet era although the balance is shifting in that the relationship is blurring from the traditional symbiosis in that terrorist can now influence and dictate what information they choose to be available and when.


Terrorists require publicity of their attack or incident in order to reach a wider audience. The wider audience is essential if the terrorist political message is to have any impact. It has been argued that not all terrorist groups seek publicity; however they have no choice if the media decide to provide coverage of it and thus the relationship is still present. Media is about revenue, it has been shown that terrorist incidents have all the human interest factors that attract a wide audience, with this comes additional revenue through advertisements. The detrimental effect of coverage is that it can skew public and governmental approaches to terrorism, disproportionately over emphasising the threat posed and undermining government policy. Media however seldom portray terrorists well, and this can readdress some of the detrimental effect. The symbiotic relationship is evident in that the relationship between media and terrorism is complementary, however with the advent of the internet there is less of dependence by terrorist upon media to pick up incidents when the terrorist can publicise their own acts.


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