Media coverage of terrorist incidents

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Sultan M Hali

MARTIN Luther King once said “Violence begets violence”. His words ring true as the world is beset by the violence of terror; however another truth has emerged i.e. reporting of violence can trigger further attacks. Pakistan has been a target of terror attacks since 2007 and violence has claimed more than seventy five thousand lives out of which more than six thousand are of law enforcing agencies. This number would have been lower if Pakistani media had practiced the ethics of covering terrorist incidents. Unfortunately, no mass communication courses teach the coverage of terror attacks. Journalists in Pakistan have to fend for themselves and face the perils unprepared.
Media coverage of several terrorist incidents has proved counterproductive, since, on one hand, it has helped the masterminds of terrorist attacks to learn about hiding identity of the executers in future attacks and, on the other hand, has exposed law enforcement and intelligence tentacles to the terrorist organization, thus putting their lives in danger. There is a need to develop training curricula and ethical, legal guidelines in the country for the media so that this essential part of the anti/ counter terrorism campaign may be able to play a responsible role. Pakistani media, which gained its freedom only in 2002, had little or no guidelines on the code of ethics while the onslaught of terror attacks put the media in line of direct fire, exposing the shortcomings. The problem is not exclusive to Pakistan, since violent terror attacks have prevailed all over the world. Studies have been carried out about the negative impact of media coverage of terror attacks. Findings from these international studies indicate the possibility that media reports about a terrorist act can be viewed as a “warning” that follow-on attacks will be perpetrated in the near future. Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin, Colombia, and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 as reported in the New York Times. Jetter notes that over the past 15 years “the world has experienced a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks”. The Global Terrorism Database listed 1,395 attacks in 1998, a figure that has steadily risen since then, reaching a record high of 8,441 in 2012.
Graphic videos of beheadings filmed by IS and released on the internet have turned the group into a globally feared brand. But they have also prompted anguished questions about how much such organizations should be given “the oxygen of publicity”. “Terrorist organizations receive extensive media attention,” Jetter says. “Whether it is the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or IS terrorism is everywhere on TV stations, newspapers and the radio. We also know that terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear and recruit followers. Jetter compared headline-grabbing terrorist attacks with those that occurred during a bigger story, such as a natural disaster, and found a clear link between the number of articles devoted to the initial terrorist incident and the number of follow-up attacks over the next few weeks. The research builds on earlier work by other economists that suggests terrorism causes media attention and vice versa, leading to an inflationary spiral.
Closer to home, we discover some harsh realities. Terrorists use the media to communicate with their followers, recruits and potential targets. Unfortunately, Pakistani as well as the Western media is only too willing to be used. The Al-Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as well as the IS desire to use shocking, deadly acts to build their brand as ruthless fighters to whom resistance is allegedly futile. Their actions have limited consequences if they cannot get their message out. By giving coverage to terror leaders and propagating their message, we are not only glorifying them but encouraging others to follow suit. Terrorism is the terror monger’s communications strategy of choice. Unfortunately, as it seeks to inform, media encourages terrorists through its choice of coverage and language it uses. The media has fallen into patterns of reportage of deadly incidents that convey a message other than the intended one. This has effect of emboldening terrorists.
It should be noted that there are courageous members of the media who daily put their lives at risk covering conflicts around the world. At least 1197 journalists have been killed in the last 25 years. Daniel Pearl (The Wall Street Journal) and David Bloom (NBC) are two of those most well-known western victims but Pakistan has its own list of brave and undaunted journalists, who put their lives at risk and paid dearly. The media plays into the hands of the terrorists by allowing itself to be easily duped by claims of involvement in attacks. All it takes is one spokesperson to say “We did it” for the reporters to be running to their smartphones to lodge the story. Where’s the proof? The media should demand to see actual evidence of everything the terrorists say. Proof. Evidence. Phone logs. Pictures. Video. Before you believe a terrorist’s words, make them prove it. There’s a two source rule for reporting. The media should insist on two sources and original documentation. Studies have shown that sensationalist media coverage of terrorist acts results in more such acts being committed. Copycat terror attacks follow. It is time this sensitive issue is given due attention.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.

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