Have you heard? Osama Bin Laden was shot and killed by U.S. Special Forces and his body is already at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. This is wonderful news for the U.S., the world, and especially for the families of the victims of 9/11 and other Al-Qaida terrorist attacks. This is also wonderful news for the news. It is typical for the televised press to sensationalize and over report on popular topics, as the relentless coverage of the Royal Wedding last week testifies to, but when it comes to global terrorism the mass media’s portrayal has several problematic facets. Keep these in mind when the media saturates you with Bin Laden coverage over the next couple of weeks. Which Al-Qaida leader will succeed Bin Laden? Is there going to be a martyr video? Where does the War on Terror go next? These are just some of the questions that will pump our anxiety and keep us watching.
It is disturbing that the incentives for media outlets, in their coverage of terrorism, are often the same as the terrorists themselves, so that there is a symbiosis between them (Hoffman 183). For example, CNN’s broadcast of an exclusive Bin Laden interview in 1997 was hailed as a success by Al-Qaida and achieved the terrorists’ strategic goal of message dissemination, while also garnering great ratings (Lia “Architect” 169-170). Another troubling aspect of news coverage is the tendency to conflate Muslims generally with terrorism. The phrase “all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” has become media wisdom for many Americans and Indians (Naik). It is easy to understand how this problem manifests when one hears popular FOX News host Bill O’Reilly running segments on how the media should call the Fort Hood assassin a “Muslim terrorist”, instead of simply a terrorist with mental health issues and an extreme religious view (O’Reilly). The media’s method of covering terrorism as terrifying is particularly damaging to the public’s understanding. The fear and uncertainty generated by the mass media’s portrayal of global terrorism prevents the public from mobilizing a rational and appropriate response to this serious international challenge.
The media’s disproportionate focus on the most sensational and most dangerous aspects of terrorism has the effect of elevating the subjective probabilities in people’s minds that they, or someone they love, could be the next victim. In 1989, a third of people surveyed said that they would decline to travel overseas because of the possibility of terrorist attacks. But it is much more common to be killed in a car accident than by terrorism, with 47,087 automobile deaths in 1988 versus 203 American deaths by terrorism that year. The chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in 1989 were the equivalent to being mauled to death by a dog (Hoffman 189). This evidence suggests that terrorism coverage heightens the public’s fear of being attacked and results in irrational behavior and decisions.
Al-Qaida strategist and media guru Abu Mus’ab al-Suri has written about how successful his organization has been in striking terror into the hearts of their enemies, despite the vastly superior security infrastructure aligned against them (Lia “Architect” 387). Bin Laden himself has argued that the economic damage caused by the 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent military response, will send the U.S. down the same path that the Soviets went down, with confidence in the last superpower’s ability to secure the world fast fading (Hoffman 216). The heighted fear of a deadly attack reminiscent of 9/11, amplified by the mass media’s “entertainment oriented” coverage, has also led to arguments for curtailing civil liberties, such as privacy and due process (Altheide 287-288). Reacting irrationally to terrorism falls directly into the strategy of the terrorists when it results in bad policy choices that waste resources and subjugate liberty and justice for a marginally insignificant increase in safety.
The media has an incentive to cover terrorism as sensationally as possible in order to attract the most eyeballs as possible. So how do we find good information on the topic? Terrorists themselves have quickly adapted to new information technologies, such as the internet and cell phones, which they now commonly use to supply audiences with custom content without the media middle man (Lia “Globalisation” 195). However, I don’t think propaganda, direct from the terrorists themselves, does any better as a source of un-sensationalized information. So far, the most rounded coverage on terrorism I have come across is from Al-Jazeera. They portray the sensational elements too, but with more substance and diversity of topic than I am used to from the Western press. While any news of terrorism is likely to cause anxiety, I have always felt that the best way to handle this is simply to resist the terror and go on with my day. I hope America and the world will do the same now that Osama is gone.
Jared Roy Endicott
Altheide, David L.. “The Mass Media and Terrorism.” Discourse and Communication. 1(3),2007. Web. 29 May 2010.
Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.
Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.
Lia, Brynjar. Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism: Patterns and Predictions . New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Print
Naik, Dr. Zakir. “Definition is Terrorism.” YouTube.com, Peace TV. 24 Jun. 2007. Web. 29 Mar 2010.
O’Reilly, Bill. “O’Reilly and the Fort Hood Terrorist.” FOX News, O’Reilly Factor. 22 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 May 2010.