On his recent visit to Bangladesh, in the course of remarks made at the Edward M Kennedy Center, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “If you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.” Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark, rightly or wrongly, garnered him a good deal of media attention, and some flak as well. But what Kerry said is nothing new. It has been said many times before, and has been discussed often in various circles. What role does the media have when it comes to reporting acts of terrorism?
News of terrorism is now almost an everyday occurrence, but always makes headline news in the media, from newspapers to television channels to the internet. We live in an age of mass digitalisation where there is an easy flow of information within the reach of millions of people, nationally and internationally, at lightning speed and in real time.
The media regard it as their responsibility to people everywhere to report the news, however appalling it is. But when it comes to the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks, it needs to walk a fine line. Does the media really have a duty not to fully report the misdeeds of terrorists, which includes individuals being killed and injured?
The oxygen of publicity
The objective of terrorist groups is simple – to obtain as much publicity as possible, through its violent acts. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister put it correctly, when she said: “...we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”
A symbiotic relationship
The media and terrorists thus share a symbiotic relationship and one that is mutually beneficial. Global terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, said: “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.”
The role of the media
The media’s role consists of two aims: first, to provide sufficient coverage on either a terrorist attack or a terrorist-related story, and second, to disseminate such stories as widely as possible. Whether it is the coverage of the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States or July 7, 2005 in London, or that of the Holey Artisan Café attack of July 1 in Dhaka, and many others perpetrated by the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups around the world, for media outlets such stories are headline news.
However, whether on a national or an international level, the media has a duty to play a responsible role while undertaking reporting on violent extremism and terrorism. Instead, the media is tasked with having to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite to receive timely and up-to-date news about any terrorist attack anywhere in the world.
Media objectives of terrorists
According to security experts, violent extremists and terrorists have a number of objectives when they threaten to or commit an act of terrorism:
l The first is to gain attention and awareness of the audience, and to create fear.
l The second goal is to demonstrate the group’s motives for carrying out the attacks.
l The third objective is to gain the respect and sympathy of those in whose name they claim to attack.
l The final objective is to gain a type of legitimate status and a media treatment similar to that of legitimate political actors.
What should be the role of the media in addressing terrorism?
The following steps should therefore be undertaken by the media in addressing violent extremism and terrorism:
The need for objectivity
The media has to be neutral and objective when reporting a story. The media has a solemn duty and a legal obligation to present both sides of the story fairly and without bias. This will enable the audience to make up their own minds about the story being presented.
A Balanced and Responsible View
It is the aim of terrorists to misinform the public after an act of terrorism and plant seeds of doubt as to whether it was their group or another who was responsible for the act. In the media’s case, it is their duty to provide a balanced, responsible and factual account to prevent the misinterpretation of terrorism-related incidents by the general public and concerned parties. This will enable them to take decisions quickly and effectively in responding to any particular attack.
A positive tool
The narrative posed by violent extremists and terrorist groups is a powerful one. To respond to this narrative, the media can counter with an equally clear and appealing narrative to stave off the propaganda tool employed by such groups. There is also a need for the media to separate the different kinds of violent extremist and terrorist groups. They can provide a background of such groups so the audience knows who they are and what their motives are for committing acts of terrorism.
Working with the government
The media and government can work closely together to form practical guidelines and measures in reporting on any violent extremism and terrorism-related story. This is an important factor as the media may have diverging political loyalties. The central goal of the media should be to keep the public informed, while the government needs to ensure that this information is measured, and be mindful of national security considerations while avoiding undue publicity or providing extremists and terrorists the “oxygen of publicity.”