Contemporary terrorism relies heavily on the media. The modern media has much to offer terrorist organization. Media coverage is used not only to convey the terrorist's objectives and political messages, but also to intimidate larger populations.
The media provides a relatively inexpensive and efficient method of relaying their goals. Further, it offers a forum to attract supporters, and a means of raising funds in an era of independent fund raising (Introduction).
The Munich Olympics in 1972 marked the true beginning of the exploitation of the modern media by terrorists. In those Olympics, terrorists first exploited the media to gain access to a global audience (Introduction).
However, the potential utility of the media on terrorist activities was well-known long before the events of the 1972 Munich Olympics (Fundamentals of Terrorism).
The first well-documented understanding of the role of the media in terrorism likely has its roots in the works of Karl Heinzen and Johann Most in the 1880s.
Heinzen and Most were German radicals who truly understood the potential impact of the media on terrorist activities. Most developed the concept of the letter bomb, and the air strike. Both philosophers argued that new technologies (including the media) would give terrorists weapons and advantages that were previously unknown. Among Heinzen and Most's other contributions to modern terrorist thought were the tainting of food supplies and the development of weapons of mass destruction (Fundamentals of Terrorism).
Since the events of 1972, the modern terrorist movement has become much more sophisticated in their manipulation. This use has mirrored the growth and growing sophistication of the media itself. Terrorist organizations sometimes mirror the activities of large corporations in their dealings with the press. Like other organizations, terrorists often have an educated, aware public relations department that drafts press releases, and arranges interviews. Specific individuals in the semi-legal areas of terrorist organizations often play a key role in the manipulation of the media (Introduction).
There has been a two-fold impact of the relationship between the media and terrorists. First, the media provides terrorists with around-the-clock access to a worldwide audience. In addition, the media gives terrorists real-time coverage of their activities. The Introduction to Unit 7, Terrorism and the Media, states "as long as the explosion is beg enough, the devastation horrific enough, and there are cameras close by, media coverage of the incident is guaranteed." Media coverage seems to follow the maxim "if it bleeds, it leads." As such, the modern media seems eager to provide coverage of terrorist activities that result in bloodshed. This coverage is often "free, unlimited, (and) at times indiscriminate" (Introduction).
The second impact of the media's relationship between the media and terrorists may actually be a potential reduction of violence by the media. The media may provide terrorists with a "release valve" or ventilation of their concerns, potentially reducing the number of violent incidents. The media may subtly force terrorists to act within the boundaries of social norms. A widely publicized violation of those norms may result in a backlash, and loss of support for the terrorist's cause.
As such, media coverage man encourage terrorists may often work within existing social norms in order to maintain support (Introduction). For example, terrorists may be hesitant to use biological weapons because their supporters may feel that the use of such weapons would violate a moral code. Similarly, attacks on elementary schools or kindergartens may be subtly discouraged by the presence of constant media coverage.
This essay will examine the role of terrorism in the media from five different perspectives. Brigitte Nacos, in "Accomplice or Witness? The Media's Role in Terrorism" gives a thorough and insightful view of the role of the modern media in terrorist activities, with a major focus on the Internet. In "Terror TV," Scott Stossel looks at the effect of 24-hour coverage of terrorism on television. Stossell notes that the unique time pressures of this type of coverage often results in poor journalism.
Janet Fine's "Arabian Knight Woos West" is a fascinating study of Al-Jezeera, the first Arabic independent news channel in the Middle East, which gained a widespread audience after the events of September 11th. In "Spin Laden," Philip Taylor looks at the ability of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to manipulate the media in order to take advantage of widespread anti-American feelings around the world. Lance Morrow's "The Gleam of a Pearl" looks at the real-life costs of terrorist coverage, through the tragic death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Understanding the reasons behind the use of the media by terrorists is absolutely essential to a complete analysis of the issue. Nacos notes that terrorists use the media to capture attention in order to further both short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals can include freeing imprisoned comrades, or creating fear and confusion. Long-term goals can include national independence or significant changes in political structures. The mass media plays an important role in achieving these long time goals by enabling terrorists to threaten or manipulate the public, specific groups, or government officials.
Further, terrorists use the media to bring recognition to their causes, demands, and grievances. Political violence almost ensures that the media will investigate the bearers of this violence. As such, terrorists can often easily gain recognition through the use of physical, political violence (Nacos).
Nacos notes that media coverage of terrorist activities can also play an important role in public service. For example, after the bombing of the World Trade Center, local media played an important role in informing the public about traffic restrictions, emergency phone numbers, and other important public service announcements. However, Nacos notes that media coverage of terrorist activities extends far beyond what is needed for public service.
Terrorist activities are often shocking, brutal, and in complete honesty, make for perfect news stories. Dramatic stories tend to get a great deal of coverage, often to the detriment of other issues. Nacos notes that early evening television broadcasts of ABC, NBC, and CBS carried 2,273 stories on terrorism from 1981 to 1986. This coverage far exceeded the combined coverage of crime, unemployment, poverty, and race issues. Further, she notes that terrorism coverage continued to climb as all-news cable channels created competition for the major news channels. It is certainly likely that the coverage of terrorist issues has skyrocketed since the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th.
Media critics argue that the media's extensive coverage of terrorist activities plays right into the hands of terrorists. They suggest that the media gives terrorists respectability, by treating them as legitimate political figures. Further, influential figures like Alexander Haig and Zbigniew Brzezinski have criticized media coverage for giving terrorists to air their demands and grievances.
The recent explosion of the popular media has resulted in increased opportunities for terrorists to use the media to achieve their goals. Television and radio channels have increased in numbers in recent years, and the Internet has provided an entirely new form of media coverage in the last decades. Nacos notes that prior to this proliferation, events like a September 1970 hijacking of four jets was relatively subdued due to the absence of live technologies and 24-hour coverage. She notes that today's hand held cameras, and proliferation of technologies allow for much more wide-spread, instantaneous coverage of terrorist activities.
The Internet has provided terrorist groups with a powerful new media outlet to spread their message. Web sites provide extensive information on terrorist activities and conceptual ideals than does the short coverage by traditional media like television, radio, or even magazines.
Given the media's widespread coverage of terrorist activities, many critics have argued that the media rewards the violent actions of terrorists. They argue that since violence and drama are the stories most covered in the traditional media, terrorists resort to violent actions in order to have their views aired in the public media. Nacos notes, "without excessive news coverage the terrorist act would resemble the proverbial tree falling in the forest: if no one learned of an incident, it would be as if it had not occurred" (Nacos, 108). As such, these critics argue that violent terrorist acts would disappear if they were not aired on the news. Even Britain's former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, referred to publicity as the "oxygen" of terrorism.
Other experts argue that publicity is not central to terrorism. They state that many terrorist acts go without any group claiming responsibility, including the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and the Oklahoma City bombing (Nacos).
Nacos rejects these arguments, saying that in most cases responsibility is indirectly assigned by the media. The terrorists may not directly take responsibility, but they often lead clues that lead to their recognition. For example, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols did not take direct responsibility of the Oklahoma City bombing, yet they carried out the attack no the second anniversary of the FBI's raid on the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. Certainly, this very fact led to a great deal of…