The Resonance Chamber: The Mediatic Coverage of Terrorist Attacks
The latest blog contribution from guest blogger and Intelligence Fusion training programme graduate, Alessandro Gagridis, takes a closer look at the role played by the media with regards to terrorism and terror-attacks across the globe.
Terrorism is a complex phenomenon. Defining it requires addressing a number of issues linked to the methods, targets, ideological motivations and political goals of the perpetrators. This inevitably entails a political and moral judgment, as the word ‘terrorism’ has a negative connotation and indicates an inherently ideology-driven act. In its traditional (non-cyber) form, terrorism presents the following general characteristics: It is a violent act; it is driven by ideological beliefs of political, social, ethnic and/or religious nature; it usually targets civilians, non-combatants or public venues (often charged with a symbolic value) located outside of conflict zones; it seeks to maximise the number of victims and the level of damage to make the attack as dramatic as possible in order to cause terror and spread fear among the target audience, with the ultimate objective of changing its behavior and achieve goals consistent with its underlying ideology.
In analytical terms, terrorism is performed on three levels; each corresponding to a different domain of action. The first coupling is tactical-material, and it concerns the planning and execution of the attack (this may also include cyber terrorism: Even though it acts via the virtual cyber domain, it still produces actual disruption and is not merely declaratory or symbolic). The second is operational-psychological. Its objective is to raise and disseminate fear among the target population, and is strictly connected with the tactical-level attack. The third is strategic-political, and concerns the terrorists’ ultimate goals: Convincing the target audience – namely the public opinion and the government – to accept their demands.
Here, a further set of considerations is necessary. Terrorism is a form of asymmetric armed struggle adopted by weak groups to fight stronger ones (normally states). In many cases, and possibly the majority, the power gap between the two is very wide; the exception being when terrorists operate against the governments of failed states whose security forces have very limited capabilities. Due to this disparity of forces, terrorist have not the material means to cause enough harm to subdue their opponent to their will. No matter the damage they will be able to inflict, it will always be immensely inferior to the one required to materially debilitate the government and force it to cede. The most devastating terrorist action in history – the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C. – did not seriously undermine the power of the United States. Compared with the terrorists, the targeted state would still dispose of immensely superior economic and military, surely much more than enough to survive and retaliate. For this reason, the tactical-material actions of terrorists per se cannot achieve any strategic/political accomplishment. In other words, terrorists cannot ‘defeat’ the state.
Nevertheless, in spite of this material inferiority, terrorists are considered a major threat to national security. Terrorists succeed in creating a sense of insecurity among citizens, thus inducing governments to implement extraordinary measures that disrupted the ordinary lifestyle. Considerable resources have been invested to tackle their menace, often with disputable results. Sometimes this led to ill-fated foreign policy decisions – the most striking examples being the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) – and on a few occasions terrorist organisations even managed to achieve their goal by prompting states to change their policy.
The reason is to be found in the operational/psychological level, which represents the essential linkage between the other two. As a matter of fact, tactical-material actions are practically useless by themselves, due to the aforementioned material disparity between terrorists and states; but they can have a disproportionate impact due to their psychological effects. Fear is an essential force multiplier for terrorism – after all, as the etymology suggests, it is the act of instigating panic among the target audience that constitutes the quintessential feature of terrorism. This must be taken into duly account when trying to define, understand, and most importantly counter it. By the means of a traumatizing violent act, terrorists seek to create a shock that will change the audience’s perceptions in line with their interests; thereby compensating for their marked inferiority in terms of material capabilities. Differently said, the cognitive sphere is the most important domain for terrorists, as their attacks are largely – if not exclusively – meant to achieve a psychological goal.
But for this strategy to be effective, the terrorists’ actions must reach the intended audience; and this raises a fundamental – yet often neglected – aspect of (counter-)terrorism: The role played by the media.
To some degree, terrorists are themselves capable of using rather advanced communications techniques to ‘advertise’ their actions in order to radicalize sympathisers (who can be considered as a secondary target audience) via propaganda and push them to join their ranks. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has demonstrated remarkable skills in producing videoclips resembling movie or game trailers to promote its agenda. However, this is not sufficient to reach the main target audience, composed of individuals who do not follow the terrorists’ own communication channels and instead rely on mainstream mass media for news. As a result, terrorist must imperatively attract the attention of the latter, since they represent the vector through which they can achieve their operational/psychological goal of frightening the public. In other words, for terrorists the media are an essential resonance chamber that plays a central role in maximizing the cognitive impact of their attacks. This is why they strike symbolic targets, strive to inflict as much victims/damage as possible and revendicate their actions: The more ‘spectacular’ the attack, the greater the mediatic coverage it will receive and the psychological impact it will have; all while providing terrorists with a powerful propaganda tool by drastically increasing their prestige among potential recruits. Therefore, the capacity to shock the public and to ‘mediatise’ the attacks are two strictly intertwined aspects of paramount importance for terrorists.
This has deep implications in the post-attack phase of counter-terrorism in both policy and ethical terms. Currently, the main preventive areas of counter-terrorism policies are preventing radicalisation, monitoring radicalised individuals, denying them access to the financial and material resources they need and adequately protecting potential targets. These measures are surely important in averting an attack to occur in the first place and in reacting adequately when it happens, but they face complex challenges: Terrorists operate in the shadows, scattered in the mass, and are therefore difficult to detect; in many cases their activities are based in other (sometimes distant) states, and thus in different jurisdictions; and finally they are a reactive enemy seeking to circumvent the measures implemented to stop them. And if they succeed in carrying out an attack, then it is too late for preventive policies to be effective. At that point counter-terrorism enters in the post-attack phase, which revolves around securing the attacked area, assisting the victims, and trying to catch the terrorists to prevent further violence, collect intelligence and put them on trial. But in all this, and in spite of its crucial importance – since it enables terrorists to achieve their main goal of spreading fear among the target audience – the role of media is neglected.
The mediatisation of a terrorist attack depends on multiple factors; but three play a major role. The first is the number of casualties: The higher the figures, the greater the mediatic reporting. The second is the socio-cultural gap between the attackers and the victims: If the divergence is significant, the media will tend to focus more on the event. The third aspect is the location: An attack in a stable and secure country with low levels of political violence will be more shocking (and therefore receive greater coverage) than one in a failed state crippled by civil war. Contrarily to what may be expected, the number of casualties is arguably less important than the other two factors. Even if an attack is less deadly, it will receive far greater global coverage if it is perpetrated in a stable and developed country by terrorists from a different socio-cultural background than that of their targets. Differently said, even if it causes a relatively limited number of casualties, a Jihadi attack against Christians in a Western city will receive much more mediatic attention than a far deadlier attack perpetrated by Muslims against Muslims in Kabul.
The location is probably the most important of the three factors, because striking in a metropolitan area at the heart of a stable country maximizes fear among the target audience, which is exactly what the terrorists aim at. At the same time, such kind of attack is more shocking and therefore more appealing to the media; meaning that it will quickly hit the headlines and will remain there for days to follow with continuous coverage on the latest developments. And this reveals the subtle, somehow twisted but extremely important link between terrorism and the media: Albeit involuntarily, the latter constitute a tremendous resonance chamber reverberating the terrorists’ dreadful message across the world, enabling them to bring fear directly in the houses of the target audience in a manner that would otherwise be far beyond their limited means.
This brings back to the considerable implications of how the media affect counter-terrorism policies. While citizens have all the right to be informed about terrorist attacks, as they represent major disturbances to public peace and a criminal aggression against society, the way the media cover such events is in the large majority of cases inappropriate.
A general premise is necessary here. The task of the media is, or at least should be, to inform. This implies providing factual, accurate and objective reporting on matters of public interest, and is of fundamental importance for any democratic society. However, this role has been supplemented by a (profit-driven) trend where the media, instead of informing, focus on narrating in order to maximise their audience share. This general tendency is even reflected in journalism job ads, where it is not uncommon to read requirements like ‘strong and convincing story-telling skills’. However, the job of a journalist is not to tell stories. That is the task of novelist and film makers. However, and regrettably, this ‘narrative’ approach has become rather common; and this is particularly problematic when dealing with sensitive events like terrorist attacks.
What media outlets are supposed to do, especially under such emergency circumstances, is to provide facts. Instead, they often rush for sensationalistic headlines, they report any kind of unverified rumors and they constantly reproduce shocking images. Sometimes they push even further, crafting melodramatic press reports appealing to the spectator’s feelings by combining martyr-like accounts on the personal life of the victims with saddening music in the background.
Apart from not corresponding to the rigorous attitude that reporting should imply and from raising ethical concerns about the exploitation of tragical events for increasing share, this is also detrimental to counter-terrorism efforts. This kind of emotional coverage risks to fuel social tension and to harm the long-term effectiveness of anti-radicalization policies. By de-rationalizing the collective perception of terrorism and funneling an emotion-driven reaction, this mediatic approach may create the unfounded impression among the population that all individuals belonging to the same political, ethnic and/or religious groups as the terrorist all represent a threat. This may result into prejudice and discrimination that in turn will generate a specular reaction of diffidence among members of these groups, possibly to the point of pushing them to radicalization. In short, it aliments a vicious cycle of mutual enmity with detrimental effects in the long run.
Yet, the main reason why the intensive and emotion-based coverage of terrorist attacks by the media represents a problem is that it plays in favor of the terrorists themselves, as it does exactly what they seek: Disseminating fear and sense of insecurity among the target audience, thus allowing them to attain their operational-psychological objective. This in turn may push governments to ill-fated domestic and foreign policy choices: To give two prominent real-life examples, the reported use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the light of the above, it is clear that the medias’ approach to terrorism should change. The shift should come from the media themselves, who should take conscience of the problem and start practicing self-restraint. Instead of posting sensationalistic headlines, or even worse producing drama-like coverage, they should simply present facts to inform people; as they are supposed to do. In covering the attack, they should limit themselves to announce that an attack has taken place in a certain place, concisely describe what happened, mention the number of victims and the measures implemented by law enforcement authorities to restore security. All other information is basically an unnecessary and detrimental ‘spectacularisation’ of the event which plays in the terrorists’ favor. In the absence of such self-restraint, there would be no other choice than introducing legally-binding regulations on the mediatic coverage of terrorist attacks; but this may represent a dangerous precedent in a democratic society.
This kind of approach may seem cold and excessively detached, but it is necessary when considering the particular challenges of countering terrorism, which exactly requires a rational and objective approach to circumscribe the psychological effects the terrorists seek. In order to compensate for their material inferiority, terrorists use violence and leverage on our fears to coerce us; but we must never forget that we are far stronger and that they cannot win with force alone. The media should not revert this balance of power by creating a false perception that plays in the terrorists’ favor.
Written by Alessandro Gagaridis
27th April 2020
See more from Alessandro: http://www.strategikos.it/