Terrorism and the Media

“If the media were not there to report terrorist acts and to explain their political and social significance… terrorism as such would cease to exist,” said John O’Sullivan, an editor of the Times of London. 1 This is also the way many other people feel about the recent increase in terrorist activity; they feel that the media is causing it. The media is doing this by fulfilling the terrorists’ need for publicity. 2 Terrorists need media publicity in order to get their views spread to the public.

Because of this need for publicity, terrorists are committing their acts of terrorism in areas where a lot of publicity will be gained; the United States and Western Europe are the most recent targets. The bombings of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the Olympic Centennial Park in Atlanta are current examples of terrorists seeking publicity in the United States. 4 Terrorists’ need for publicity has been around for a long time, but new media technologies are causing the problem to grow faster than ever.

Terrorism is growing at an impressive rate of 12 to 15 percent per year. 6 The media cause many problems besides helping terrorists. They inspire more terrorism to happen, cause terrorist attacks to be bigger, cause problems with authorities, and cause ineffective laws to be passed. To solve these problems, government censorship and self-regulation have been suggested. Government censorship involves the government controlling what the media can report; there has been controversy over this because it could take away many American freedoms.

Self-regulation involves the media controlling themselves. Because of the way the media are currently covering terrorist events, many serious problems are occurring; if the media do not voluntarily change their ways, government regulations could be enacted. 7 Although debates over how to solve the problems are relatively new, terrorists’ use of publicity has been around for many years. When a terrorist has publicity as his main goal, he is known as a “modern” terrorist; this type of terrorism has been around for a long time, but not until around 1968 was it widely known.

Most people connected terrorism with “classical” terrorists. This kind of terrorism is used in the time of war; there is no goal of publicity. All they want to do is intimidate the opposition. The FLN in Algeria are labeled as this type of terrorist. They once killed many of their enemies by bombing a bar that many of their enemies were in; this activity shows how classical terrorists intimidate the opposition. 8 Even though “classical” terrorism has not changed much, “modern” terrorism has changed greatly over time.

The way in which terrorists have gained publicity is very different. Late nineteenth century Southern lynch mobs and Central American death squads did not even use the media to gain their publicity. They just used their victims as examples to others who might disobey their rules. 9 As times changed, terrorists began to publicize their views in books, pamphlets, underground newspapers, etc. This technique allowed them to reach a bigger audience. It was mostly used by terrorist groups during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Terrorist groups often contained a printer and a writer who together would make sure their views were publicized; the groups did not have to rely on an outside force to publicize for them. 10 As new media technologies were invented, the terrorist groups were able to publicize their views to a bigger audience than they had ever imagined possible. 11 The only problem was that they could not rely on people in the group to publicize for them; it would be almost impossible for a terrorist group to own a television or radio station.

The only way they could get a piece of the new technology was to “create news. ” This is what most terrorists do today; they stage an event that will gain news coverage and then try to get their views publicized by threatening drastic actions. 12 This strategy of terrorism is causing the media to produce many serious problems. One problem with the media’s coverage of terrorism is that it can inspire future acts of terrorism. This is called the “contagion hypothesis. “13 This is caused mostly because the actual acts of terrorism usually receive more media attention than the punishments.

People only see the successes of terrorism, not the consequences. If more attention was put on the punishments, it could deter similar acts of terrorism by showing the consequences. In a study of newspapers in the United States and Europe, it was found “that stories focusing on the punishment of terrorists receive less then 5 percent as many column inches of space as stories pertaining to the actual crimes with which the terrorists are charged. ” Also, the incidents were on the front page, while the charges were near the back. This factor can be seen in hijackings. They usually occur in “clusters”; the terrorists see the success of other terrorists and then gain enough courage to perform similar attacks. A similar effect can be seen when there is a newspaper strike in San Francisco; there are fewer suicides because people do not get ideas from the usually reported suicides. 15 Besides contributing to the expansion of terrorist activities, the media may also cause the acts to be bigger. This is called the “immunization effect. ” It can be seen in Robert G. Bell’s study on skyjackings.

He found that a “saturation of media coverage led to public apathy robbing the terrorist act of its publicity effect. “16 This is where the public begins to accept terrorism because the media show it to them all of the time. Terrorists then have to attempt bigger acts in order to gain attention. Also, more people get involved in terrorism because it is more publicly accepted than before. Another problem that constant media coverage can cause is the “climate of intimidation. ” This is where the media’s coverage of terrorism causes the public to fear an attack. This happens when the media make terrorists seem stronger than they really are; they do this by treating the terrorist like he is someone of great importance. 18 When the public fear an attack near them, they want the government to step in and quickly solve the problem. This can cause ineffective laws to be passed. 19 This happened after the bombing in Oklahoma City. The public was afraid of another attack and wanted the government to quickly find a solution. This caused President Clinton to urge Congress to pass new laws, most of which were not even effective. They passed the Terrorism Prevention Act.

The bill did nothing but take away rights of normal citizens and stiffen the punishments of the offenders; the bill would not have prevented the bombing in Oklahoma City from occurring. 20 Besides causing problems in the public, the media cause many problems with authorities. The Hanafi Muslim siege in Washington, D. C. , is an example of this. The media tied up the phone lines that the police needed to negotiate with. 21 Also, confidential information was released to the terrorists. They told of employees trapped inside the building and of police activity outside the building; this endangered many innocent lives. The media do not always cause problems with authorities, though. The media help police in the negotiation process by providing the police with a means of communicating with the terrorist. They also provide authorities with crucial information that they would not be able to acquire. This happened to the United States during the Iranian situation; their only way of receiving information was through the media. Even though the media can sometimes help police, most police chiefs do not like the way the media cover terrorism.

The 1977 Sommer survey said that “93 percent of the police chiefs responding believed live television coverage of terrorist acts encourages terrorism… None believed that terrorist acts should be televised live. “23 The problems that the media cause need to be solved, but before solutions can be found, the problems must be researched. 24 If solutions are not found, many lives will be lost at a gain to the terrorists; terrorists do not care about people’s lives. They only want the publicity gained from killing people. 25 The attempted assassination of President Reagan is an example of this.

The shooter, John Hickley, Jr. aid he “deliberately planned an assassination before news cameras to win maximum media attention. “26 A more recent example is “The Unabomber. ” He used deadly bombs to gain attention; then, he said he would stop only if he would get a book deal. 27 Even though research is being done on the problems that the media cause, researchers have not come to any conclusions. For example, researchers spend most of their time studying the “contagion effect,” but still no conclusions have been found. 28 Even though very little data has been uncovered on the problems the media cause, some solutions have been suggested.

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