The relationship of media with terrorism has been recognised now since the 1970s. Since terrorism now takes up so much media space and constitutes a major part of the daily news by citizens on their television screens, newspapers and personal computers, the importance of media as a social construction entity framing the debate on terrorism is critical. The mass media has now become the primary vehicle through which the public has come to know and fear terrorism. Terrorism and media exist in a symbiotic relationship that is inherent to the natures of both and is not meant to be a value judgment; it’s the essential nature on which both operate.
Since terrorism relies on communication of a terrorist act to a public much bigger than the intended victims, the reporting of a violent event helps to extend its impact beyond those directly affected. In effect, without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and, therefore, it has no reason for being. On the other hand, media outlets themselves benefit from larger audiences, increased sales, associated revenues and so forth from their coverage of terrorist threats and attacks. On September 11, 2001, for example, the intense public interest in unfolding events led the average American to view an incredible eight hours of television news coverage per day. On the same day, online news sites experienced unprecedented numbers of hits. CNN.com, for example, recorded 162 million views of its pages compared with a daily average of only 14 million. While the magnitude of these figures is considerable, they are by no means unique. Earlier events, such as Black September’s kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, for example — which drew a worldwide audience of half a billion or 13 per cent of the world’s population at the time — had already highlighted the importance of terrorism. This understanding of the media-terrorism nexus as a symbiotic relationship is intuitively appealing. Not only does it correspond to a sophisticated understanding of terrorism as a form of instrumental violence, it also poses a dilemma of press freedom as opposed to responsibility for the media elite. The debate rages on from scholars who exhort that terrorism increases with increasing media coverage, to those who view the media as being a victim of terrorism itself.
Media coverage directly does not cause terrorist violence, but it certainly helps to constitute terrorism as a social construction by the concept of news frames, which are interpretive structures that journalists employ to help their audiences locate an event within a broader context of historical, political, social and normative dynamics. They are collections of concepts, phrases, narratives and images that are instantly familiar to their viewers and readers. Crucially, because of this familiarity, they encourage very particular understandings of the events being depicted, giving them broader meaning. They do this, in large part, by magnifying or shrinking certain elements of an event to make those elements appear more or less relevant than others. This notion of news frames is a useful one for critical terrorism studies scholars because it encourages us to understand media presentations of terrorism as choices rather than neutral or objective representations of external events. How an attack is depicted by journalists and their editors always involves a process of selection. Certain causes, backgrounds, consequences and evaluations will be prioritised at the expense of others, and the foregrounding and camouflaging of particular parts of a story will have cognitive and evaluative effects on its audience.
Cognitively, a news frame works to produce a coherent narrative or story by shaping its empirical ‘facts’ into a reasonable explanation of what has occurred, and why. By joining actors and events around specific backdrops, frames encourage particular readings of violence, such as by asking their audiences to focus on the biography of a ‘terrorist’ leader or on religious tensions as the ongoing context of an attack. The evaluative dimension of a frame, in contrast, encourages audiences to assess and condemn a violent action by “naming perpetrators, identifying victims and attributing blame”. Simply by referring to an act of violence as ‘terrorism’, the media is already condemning that which has occurred.
(Extracted from and referenced from Professor Richard Jackson’s Critical Terrorism Studies project, this article is the first in a series of articles on critical terrorism studies and how they shape our understanding of terrorism).
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2013.
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