Digging Up Old School Papers – Terrorism and the Media

While watching coverage of the terror attacks in Mumbai last week, I couldn’t help but feel that the traditional mainstream media was being rather irresponsible in covering the events and aftermath of the attacks.

This made me remember an essay paper I wrote as a sophomore in college about a link between terrorism and the media. I decided to search an old hard drive to see if I still had a copy of it. Interestingly enough, I do!

Strange coincidence: It was written on June 11, 2001. Exactly 3 months before the horrible attacks on the United States.

Anyway, not sure how much I agree or disagree with what I wrote now. But it’s an interesting perspective on terrorism before the whole world changed on September 11, 2001.

Terrorism and the Media

Most people find out what is happening in the world by tuning into one of their local news networks on television or by reading the newspaper. However, when it comes to a violent act that results in the loss of life, like in the case of many terrorist activities, media coverage is almost sickening. Where is the line between “enough” and “too much” drawn? In fact, too much media coverage serves the purpose of a terrorist, enabling them to get their message into the public spotlight. In Terrorism: How the West Can Win, Lord Chalfont states: “Terrorism would be impotent without publicity. It is utterly dependent on the media to compel and hold the public attention. A soldier shot in the back in Belfast may merit a few lines in the national papers, and probably none in the international press; but a restaurant or a supermarket bombed in a city center, with women and children killed and mutilated, or an airliner hijacked and subsequently blown up, will get headlines and prime-time treatment.”[i] Excessive coverage of terrorist acts by media promote violent acts of terrorism by serving as a medium for terrorists to spread their agenda while giving them the attention they crave.

Terrorism has been a virtual plague in society for centuries. To find out why terrorism is used, we must first look at what it is. In 1985, Vice President George Bush appointed government officials to a task force on combating terrorism. Their definition (although very broad) of terrorism is “the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives. It is generally intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals or groups to modify their behavior or policies.”[ii]

Some would argue that media has absolutely no effect on terrorism, as it has been going on for centuries, especially when information took much longer to get from point A to point B. In fact, it can be argued that terrorism in the past was just as effective, if not more so then it is in current times. Gwynne Dwyer notes that in the past, anyone labeled a terrorist by the British press could show up at Buckingham Palace within a decade or so and have tea with the Queen. The reasoning behind this though is that terrorism was and has always been part of a grand strategy of a national-liberation movement, and in the colonial point of view (such as a colony separating from it’s motherland), it was usually effective in gaining independence. [iii]

Also, in covering a terrorist act, the media tries to analyze why the terrorist committed the act and what message they are trying to get across. In trying to analyze the act of violence, it is highly conceivable that the media can distort the message of the terrorist. It would be reasonable to assume that a terrorist would be aware of this and not try to purposely use media as a conduit to get their message into the public spotlight.

However, Katharine Graham, an executive officer of The Washington Post Company writes on why the media must report terrorism. In an editorial for the Washington Post, she writes that terrorist acts are impossible to ignore. They are simply too big of a story to pass unobserved. If the media did not report them, rumor would abound. She goes on to state that there is no compelling evidence to suggest that terrorist attacks would cease if the media stopped covering them. She cites in interviews with terrorism specialists, that terrorism would only increase, as terrorists increased the scope and intensity of their attacks the more the media ignored them.[iv]

There is much evidence to the contrary, showing that media publicity actually causes terrorism. John O’Sullivan, deputy editor of the Times of London, wrote an essay in 1986 declaring that, “a terrorist is a criminal who seeks publicity.” He goes on to claim that it is an understatement to say that a terrorist seeks publicity. They require it. O’Sullivan then states that “if the media were not there to report terrorist acts and to explain their political and social significance, terrorism as such would crease to exist. [v]

The media does three things to help a terrorist: First off, the media helps the terrorist in spreading an atmosphere of fear and anxiety around the general population. The simple media coverage of a terrorist act raises public alarm and incites a general wave of fear in society. Secondly, the media provides a terrorist with the opportunity to argue his case to the public. Journalistic curiosity helps by answering such questions as “Who are these people hijacking planes?” and “Why are they doing it?” O’Sullivan argues that the press assumes the public wants to know the answers to these questions, so it seeks to provide them to the best of their ability. Terrorists even go so far as to provide for the media, arranging press conferences and granting exclusive interviews. The importance that terrorists feel attached to the media can be judged by the fact that they often force the media to present their case to the public by threatening to kill hostages if they refuse. The last example of how the media helps terrorists is how it “bestows respectability” on the terrorist groups. O’Sullivan says, “Talking about the aims and philosophies of terrorists inevitably conveys the impression that they are a species of politician rather than a species of criminal.”[vi] This coverage can swing public sympathy in favor of the terrorists. O’Sullivan isn’t the only one who believes that media helps make terrorism “successful.”

Lord Chalfont, a former Cabinet Minister for the British government writes a concurring opinion. “Our newspapers, radio, and television have probably done more than the terrorist organizations themselves to make terrorist violence glamorous and successful.”[vii]

Many specific sources cite that media is a common problem in terrorism, saying that it not only helps terrorism exist, but that it actually helps to promote it. Brigitte Nacos, a writer for Current History says that, “terrorism can be seen as a political that is played for the audiences, and the media plays a very crucial role. Without massive news coverage, a terrorist act would be seen as a proverbial tree falling in the forest.”[viii]

The media’s saturating coverage of terrorists acts, also seems to be effective in “planting” an idea into the head individuals and creating copycat activities. One needs to look no further then the domestic terrorism that seems to run rampant in the public school system. Kids fed up with being bullied or kids who are starving for attention “fix” their problems by bringing a gun to school and mowing down whoever is in their sights. This is a fairly recent phenomenon that started not more then 4 years ago. Edward Farris, a teen crisis counselor in Los Angeles, says that copycat violence is common after such high-profile school incidents. [ix]

Since 1997, when the first of these high profile school shootings took place in Alaska, there have been 13 shootings, resulting in the death of 30 people and wounding of countless others. [x] There are many motives that can be attributed to the shootings and the cry for attention can definitely be counted as one of them. What better way to get attention then to appear on national television? And what easier way is there nowadays to appear on national television? The unfortunate trend of kids taking guns to school appears to continue, however police are cracking down on potential perpetrators of school violence fairly effectively. Just days after a school shooting in Santee, California, two students were arrested in Twenty-nine Palms for composing a “hit list” of 16 students. And soon after that, six more students were arrested for three separate incidents.[xi] A trend has developed in regards to the school violence. Students are simply fed up with having to live in fear and are now becoming less afraid to talk to authorities. Where media refuses to show restraint, kids are taking control of these problems themselves.

On the international terrorism front, we have seemingly continual reports of kidnappings, airline high jackings and embassy bombings. A very good example of copycat terrorism is to take a look at the Middle East. The continual fighting of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who resorts to acts of terrorism to try to force Israel’s hand. Daily bombings rock Israeli shopping markets, nightclubs and other social gathering spots. And for what reason? To force the Israeli government to change their policy regarding land/independence for Palestinians. In order to do this, the P.L.O. resorts to violence and suicide bombings, which gain international attention. Why is terrorism so readily used? Benjamin Netanyahu says that terrorism is something that cannot be easily dismissed, especially since terrorism is escalating. [xii]

However, copycat violence that is used in the United States and copycat violence that is used internationally should be differentiated. The acts of violence that occur in the United States are nothing more then random acts. Looking at Israel, the acts of violence there are actually part of a larger goal, carried out by an organization (such as the P.L.O.). While not necessarily coordinated, they are nearly a continual thing that the Israeli government must be forced to deal with.

Benjamin Netanyahu offers an insight as to how hard it is for a government to deal with terrorism: “If the government does not give in, the terrorist promises (and often delivers) further terrorism. This induces further criticism of the government and more, increasingly desperate calls to heed the terrorist demands. If the government succumbs, the terrorist scored and obvious victory; even if the terrorist agrees to a temporary hiatus, the citizens know that their government has caved in and betrayed their trust yet again.[xiii]” So in effect, terrorism not only works by intimidating the government, but by intimidating the citizens, who in turn ask the government to cave into the terrorist demands, in order for a temporary peace to be created. This is a catch 22 for the government, a no win situation where they either must give in and lose the trust of their citizens or try to hold up against the demands and actually lose their citizens.

What must be done to stop terrorism? Some say that terrorism can never truly be defeated, but there are many options a country can take to defeat terrorism at home an abroad. They include political and economic pressures (such as cutting off diplomatic relations or economic sanctions) and the use of military force against the terrorists[xiv], such as the United States response to the embassy bombings that were organized by Osama Bin Laden. Cut off media contact and reports, or severely moderate them, so as not to instill fear into ordinary citizens. The terrorist is an advocate of murder and the advocacy of murder should be beyond the acceptable boundaries of public discussion.[xv]

Media coverage is what terrorists seek through their acts of violence. Reporters must consider the effects that their coverage will have on the terrorists, the nations involved and, perhaps most importantly, victims such as hostages. [xvi] In an open democratic society where free speech is a virtue, it is hard to prevent the media from covering a “newsworthy” event, but there must be a line drawn as to what is newsworthy and what is not in the best interests of the public. Until media outlets start a self imposed control of what they cover, a moderation system of sorts, the media will always be exploited by terrorists who find that the easiest way into the home of the people they are trying to win sympathy with is through the television.


[i] Lord Chalfont, Terrorism: How The West Can Win ed. Benjamin Netanyahu (New York: Farrar · Straus · Giroux, 1986) 126.

[ii] Vice President’s Task Force on Combating Terrorism, “All Political Violence Is Terrorism,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 17.

[iii] Gwynne Dwyer, “A Tactic Whose Time Has Past,” World Press Review, Nov 1, 1998: 13.

[iv] Katherine Graham, “The Media Must Report Terrorism,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 75.

[v] John O’Sullivan, “Deny Them Publicity,” Terrorism: How The West Can Win ed. Benjamin Netanyahu (New York: Farrar · Straus · Giroux, 1986) 120.

[vi] John O’Sullivan, “Deny Them Publicity,” Terrorism: How The West Can Win ed. Benjamin Netanyahu (New York: Farrar · Straus · Giroux, 1986) 122.

[vii] Lord Chalfont, Terrorism: How The West Can Win ed. Benjamin Netanyahu (New York: Farrar · Straus · Giroux, 1986) 126.

[viii] Brigitte L Nacos, “Accomplice or Witness? The Media’s Role In Terrorism,” Current History, April 2000: 174.

[ix] Scott Bowles, “Violence Threatens Schools Across the US,” USA Today, May 24, 2000.

[x] “Recent School Shootings in the US,” USA Today, March 5, 2000.

[xi] Scott Bowles, “Violence Threatens Schools Across the US,” USA Today, May 24, 2000.

[xii] Benjamin Netanyahu, “Terrorism Can Be Eliminated,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 184.

[xiii] Benjamin Netanyahu, “Terrorism Can Be Eliminated,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 184.

[xiv] Benjamin Netanyahu, “Terrorism Can Be Eliminated,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 188.

[xv] John O’Sullivan, “Media Publicity Causes Terrorism,” Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints (St Paul: Greenhaven Press) 72.

[xvi] Terry Anderson “Terrorism and Censorship: The Media in Chains.” Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1993, 127 – 136


Anderson, Terry. “Terrorism and Censorship: The Media in Chains.” Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1993, 127 – 136

Bowles, Scott. “Violence Threatens Schools Across the US.” USA Today, May 2000

Dwyer, Gwynne. “A Tactic Whose Time Has Past,” World Press Review, Nov 1, 1998: 13.

Nacos, Brigette L. “Accomplice or Witness? The Media’s Role in Terrorism.” Current History, April 2000, 174

Netanyahu, Benjamin, ed. Terrorism: How the West Can Win. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986

“Recent School Shootings in the United States.” USA Today, March 2000

Sterling, Claire. The Terror Network. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981

Szumski, Bonnie. Terrorism: Opposing Viewpoints. St Paul: Greenhaven Press. 1986


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *