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Media on Terrorism
Acts of anti-American terrorism are becoming increasingly common, and more and more are occurring on American soil, according to Columbia political scientist Brigitte L. Nacos (Nacos, 1995). According to Nacos, the rise in terrorism is not a matter of flawed national security. It has more to do with the success that terrorists have enjoyed in exploiting the relationships among the media, public opinion and political decision-making (Nacos, 1994).
Nacos believes that the media is "the crucial link in the terrorist's 'calculus of violence,' particularly terrorist spectaculars -- large actions aimed at Americans, like the Iran hostage crisis, the bombing of PanAm Flight 103, and the hanging of hostage Lt. Colonel William Higgins in Lebanon (Nacos, 1994)." In these cases, she says, the terrorists "exploited the free American media. They got an extraordinary amount of attention -- up to two-thirds of the network evening news devoted to the events. Newspapers were similarly devoted." This manipulation of public opinion can be very harmful, she says.
This paper addresses the effects of the media on terrorism. According to Nacos (1995), government policy is often shaped by terrorist action, even in cases where a conflict of interest between the safety of hostages and the interests of the nation exists. In these cases, the media presents political leaders with a dilemma.
Public opinion polls reveal that a majority of Americans agree that we should never negotiate with terrorists, but in a time of crisis public opinion flip-flops. The media's efforts usually enhance the public siding with victims. As this shows, terrorists have achieved their objective. They've coerced government officials indirectly through the media (Nacos, 1995)."
This paper aims to examine the media's influence on terrorism, to determine whether or not the media should provide less coverage of terrorism or if they should continue to report the news.
How the Media Works
In order to understand how terrorists use and manipulate the media to further their cause, it is important to look at how the media works (Morgan, 2002). For the television industry, the most important factor of business is ratings. News stations rely on rating points, which are determined by how many people watch their programs. News stations make money through advertisers, so it is important to keep ratings high so that they can attract high-paying advertisers.
In the television industry, new stations experience "sweep" months, which occur during February, May, July, and November (Morgan, 2002). During these months, news stations broadcast many special reports, as they compete for viewers. If the news stations are unable to score enough ratings point, they may replace their news departments with fresh faces.
It is up to news stations to show the public what they want to see. Many people complain that there is too much sex and violence in the news, but the media argues that they are simply showing the public what it wants to see. If people did not watch it, the news stations would not show it. In many cases, even if people feel that something is offensive, part of them still wants to see it.
News stations understand human nature and know that if they don't show the gruesome or offensive material, they will not get very far. The success of shows like Hard Copy and Inside Edition prove that the public wants to see hard-core news (Morgan, 2002).
Terrorists and Publicity
Many people have argued over whether or not terrorists are interested in publicity. The answer leans more towards yes than no. In 1974, scholar Brian Jenkins stated that "terrorism is theatre," and terrorists themselves see it in this light (CFR, 2003). Narodnaya Volya, the late-19th-century Russian anarchist group, noted that its violent activities were "propaganda by deed." Over the past several decades, terrorists have planned their attacks in an effort to get as much publicity as possible. This enables them to get their messages out through all available channels.
Many experts believe that the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were planned so that billions of television viewers around the world would see that the United States is a vulnerable nation (CFR, 2003). These attacks prompted extensive reporting on al-Qaeda and its Islamist agenda around the world, making these groups famous.
On the other hand, many experts say that the nature of terrorism is now transforming. According to CFR (2003), "Jenkins has famously said that terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. But the emergence of religious terror groups with apocalyptic outlooks and the availability of weapons of mass destruction may indicate that inflicting mass casualties has supplanted publicity as the primary goal of some terrorist campaigns."
Terrorists need the media, as it is an excellent way to capture the attention of governments and the public. Most terrorist activities are calculated acts of violence that are designed to deliver a political or religious message. Terrorists aim to win popular support, and often prompts the attacked country to act rashly, attracting recruits, polarizing public opinion, demonstrating their ability to cause pain, or undermining governments.
For these reasons, many terrorists plan their attacks to attract media attention. For instance, Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, publicly stated that he chose the Murrah Federal Building as a target because it had "plenty of open space around it, to allow for the best possible news photos and television footage (CFR, 2003)."
The Italian leftist Red Brigades launched attacks on Saturdays so that he would make the Sunday newspapers, which were more likely to be read by greater numbers of people (CFR, 2003). The Palestinian group, Black September, held a group of Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics because its leaders knew that people were watching the games on television.
If this group had killed hostages anywhere else in the world, there would not have been the same amount of coverage. Television cameras and reporters from around the world were already in place. The event instantly grabbed the attention of the media and the viewers, as about 800 million people watched the live coverage. As Jeffrey D.
Simon wrote in "The Terrorist Trap," "Terrorism was ahead of television technology at this time. The global sporting event was instantaneously transformed into a global terrorist event." (Simon, 1994, pp. 263-64).
Terrorist groups understand the effects of the media, and many groups even have their own media operations. The Colombian leftists of the FARC, for instance, put out their own radio broadcasts, and many groups use Web sites to spread their message.
It is difficult to determine whether or not media coverage actually helps terrorists. Many people say that any publicity is good publicity. Therefore, even if an attempt at terrorism is unsuccessful, the media coverage can raise awareness about the terrorists' cause. Terrorism, which occupies a large share of news coverage, can also move neglected issues to the top of the political agenda.
For example, a series of attacks in the 1970s and 1980s furthered the cause of Palestinian nationalism. Terrorism also sparks policy debates and public discussion, as the radical views of terrorists and the anger of terrorism's victims and their families become highly publicized.
However, many experts doubt that media coverage aids terrorists (CRF, 2003). Many terrorist attacks result in deaths and injuries, which can alienate potential supporters and sympathizers. In addition, different terrorist activities have different meanings for different audiences, so it is impossible for terrorists to control how their actions will be covered or perceived. Also, when the media labels an event as a "terrorist" one, they are focusing attention on a group's methods, rather than its message, which often makes the group a public enemy.
Media Coverage of Terrorism and Its Effect on the Community
On September 11, 2001, millions of people sat glued to the television, watching the seemingly endless news coverage of the United States terrorist attacks (Hamblem, 2002). Many people watched because they were hoping for information because they are fearful of a future attack and wanted to be prepared; others watched because it helped them digest and process the event; still others say the media intentionally created addictive images almost like those seen in an action movie. This incident stressed the importance of understanding the effects on the community that this type of media coverage may have.
Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 was the worst terrorist act perpetrated on U.S. soil. This attack resulted in 168 deaths and 700 injuries (Hamblem, 2002). In addition, more than 16,000 individuals in the downtown area were affected by the blast. Due to the serious nature of this event, the media covered the bombing extensively.
Shortly after the bombing, researchers conducted a study, revealing that two-thirds of a large group of Oklahoman school children in grades 6 through 12 reported that, in the seven weeks after the bombing, "most" or "all" of their television…[continue]
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