Fear Factor: Terrorism
Media’s Role in Terrorism

Written By: Richard T Eckert on 4/10/07
As the war on terrorism continues, so does the ever-increasing presence of the mass media.  Each night we are constantly reminded of the threats, faced not only by our brave soldiers, but to the men and women who stand alongside them, the news reporters.  “Terrorism is perfect for this scenario because it is so dramatic” (White, 2006, p. 331).  In order to get close to the drama, we find ourselves glued to our televisions, radios, and newspapers, for the latest wartime coverage.  Along with these “primitive” sources of news and information, one can simply log onto the Internet, where a vast array of both newsworthy and not so newsworthy information can be obtained.  According to Krasnoboka (2002), research has shown that the electorate in most countries is gravitating to online reporting and discussions.  Krasnoboka further reports that the Internet does not have an overwhelmingly effect in democratic countries, but it is a powerful tool for opposition forces in authoritarian regimes.  Through the use of the Internet, these regimes are capable of broadcasting their propaganda messages, in the hopes of gaining sympathizers for their cause.  White (2006) reinforces Krasnoboka’s idea by stating that “terrorists understand the power of the Internet and its potential as a force multiplier” (White, p. 336).  The Internet has made it easy for terrorists to move about the country, with minimal chance of apprehension.         

            The one question that’s been raised, is whether the media has increased their coverage of terrorist activities since the events of 9/11?  In response, media representatives state that it’s their job to keep the American people informed of those events occurring around them; they view themselves as the eyes and ears of the American public. 

Just when we thought we could escape the evils of terrorism, our attention becomes quickly fixated on the nightly news.  Whether it’s another car bombing or civilian kidnapping, we find it difficult to escape the constant reminders of this horrific battle; a battle where the enemy is no where to be found.  Terrorist organizations have found that the media serves as an ideal way of spouting their hatred to the entire world.  “Terrorists get free publicity for themselves and their cause.  The media, meanwhile, make money as reports of terror attacks increase newspapers sales and the number of television viewers” (Morin, 2006, p. A02).  What’s been described as a mutual relationship, whereas both feeding off the other, they are both able to advertise their messages; these messages include instilling fear and increasing sales.  “The recent history of media research suggests that terrorists and the media have a symbiotic relationship (White, 2006, p. 339).  This relationship, with the assistance from law enforcement, must ultimately be broken. 

            “The growth of media outlets and competing perspectives on the news has had a huge effect on the way the United States is viewed around the world, and this effect extends to perceptions of terrorism and America’s foreign policy” (White, p. 334).  As a nation which is viewed by many as being evil, the United States must find a way in which to change these negative images.  “A point of view presented from various perspectives changed the way U.S. foreign policy was perceived, but the power of the media goes further than this” (White, p. 335).  While speaking to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, former CIA Official Graham Fuller (2002) stated “I would say there is almost universally a negative approach towards the United States and its policies at the political level, not on the U.S. as a cultural society, but of U.S. policy”.  He found that this negativity was partially to blame on the media; both domestic and international.  The first step in improving our foreign relations must begin by improving our image through the media.  Gadt Wolfsfeld (2001) says that such media victories are crucial.  White (2006) concurred by stating that “those battles which are played out in the media are just as important as those played out in the battlefields” (p. 335). 

            Many feel that the increased media coverage is doing the U.S. more harm than good.  Allan Mazur (1982) is convinced that media reports have a suggestive effect on violent behavior.  This contagious quality is what the U.S. is most fearful of.  “The media also influence the way terrorists select their targets; to spread violence, terrorists select targets for maximum publicity” (White, p. 342).  It’s this type of publicity which the U.S. hopes to quell.  In an effort to suppress this negative and ultimate harmful information, many governments have called for its immediate censorship.  For the U.S., the question of 1st Amendment rights comes into play.  “Freedom from censorship came to equal the media’s right to report the news” (White, p. 343).  Proponents of censorship believe that in emergency situations only, shall the government have the right to place censorship on the media.  Juanita Jones and Abraham Miller (1979) suggest that government restrictions on dissemination of news do not violate the press’s rights during emergency conditions.  During emergency situations it’s expected that the safety of those involved shall take precedents over the media broadcasting their story.  “However, the U.S. Supreme Court will not allow blanket denial through a set of conditions.  Limitations to access are supported only when they are justified by the circumstances” (White, p. 344). 

            The U.S. has also turned to the international community for help; looking for assistance in censoring their respective media outlets.  Unfortunately, this has not been an easy task.  “The Arab television network al Jazeera, for example, covers events from its own perspective, and it will not be dominated by appeals or threats from the West” (White, p. 345).  These same sentiments are echoed throughout the world as other countries feel the growing pressures of the American government.  “Non-Western countries believe the world’s media have been controlled by Western biases, and their emerging news organizations are not about to subject themselves to any form of Western censorship” (World Economics Forum, 2002). 

            In addition to protecting our boarders and interior security, the Department of Homeland Security, should take a more proactive stance in monitoring both domestic and international media broadcasts.  With the media being used as a vehicle for propaganda and anti-Western messages, the Department of Homeland Security must develop ways in which to intercept these messages and to block their broadcasts.  This can only be done with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies.  Through a joint effort, the Department of Homeland Security will continue to keep our boarders safe from future terrorist attacks. 

            In an attempt to assist law enforcement agencies in handling media related issues, it’s paramount that law enforcement agencies foster a more positive relationship between them and the local media outlets.  By building a trust, law enforcement agencies will find it easier in dealing with media issues.  In order to maintain an open line of communication between the law enforcement agency and the media, the Chief of Police or his designee should assign an officer(s) to handle all media related requests.  The officer(s) should be knowledgeable in the handling of all Freedom of Information Requests (FOIL); should be familiar with those policies involving minors; should also coordinate all training exercises in conjunction with the local media.  Other recommendations would involve the censoring of material which is deemed to sensitive for media release.  Information, which if released would hamper or weaken an ongoing investigation, will not be released until it’s determined otherwise.  For incidents involving possible terrorist related activity, the media will immediately contact the local law enforcement agency to determine the validity of both the messenger and message.  With safety being paramount, the media should be strongly urged not to release this information until it’s determined otherwise. 

            “No person, place, or object of value is immune from terrorist attacks, and for terrorists there are no innocent bystanders” (Goldstein, 2007, p. 1).  Keeping this in mind, we should always remain vigilant in thwarting off future terrorist attacks.  Through the joint effort of both law enforcement and the media outlets, we can hopefully remain one step ahead of these evil organizations.     

Fuller, G. (2002). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from http://www.state.gov/r/adcompd/11844.htm

Goldstein, D. (2007). Issues in Modern Terrorism: Policy, Liberty, Security, and the Future. Boston, MA: lecture.

Jones, J., & Miller, A. (1979). The Media and Terrorist Activity: Resolving the First Amendment Dilemma. Ohio Northern University Law Review 6: pp. 70-81.

Krasnoboka, N. (2002). Real Journalism Goes Underground: The Internet Underground. The International Journal for Communications Studies 64(5): pp. 479-499.

Mazur, A. (1982). Bomb Threats and the Mass Media: Evidence for a Theory of Suggestions. American Sociological Review 47: pp. 407-410.

Morin, R. (2006, June 15). What’s Black and White and Red All Over? The Washington Post. Retrieved April 10, 2007, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/14/AR2006061402025.html

White, J. (2006). Terrorism and Homeland Security (5th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Wolfsfeld, G. (2001). The News Media and the Second Intifada: Some Initial Lessons. Press/Politics 6(4): pp. 113-118.

World Economic Forum. (2002). Media and Terrorism: Changing the Grand Rules. Annual Meeting 2002.      
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