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In light of the recent Boston Marathon event that sent virtually all of America into a tailspin, this post examines the media’s coverage of acts of terrorism and questions what journalistic approach is appropriate in such circumstances.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge the relationship that exists between the government, the mass media, and terrorists—in his book Framing Terrorism, Norris points out that terrorism “is an instrument adopted to achieve multiple political goals;” (Norris 4) this objective automatically brings both the government and the media into play by the very nature of the situation.

Provided the notion that many terrorist acts are rooted in a desire for attention, this puts the media in a difficult situation because basic news values would cause reporters to seek out these types of events.  The Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture examined an argument by Walter Laquer that claims that without media coverage, there would be no terrorism (Biernatzki 20).  The idea behind this argument is that terrorist acts are fueled by the sure-fire expectation that such an act will make the headlines of all major news outlets within hours, or even minutes.

“Possibly the most accurate description of the relationship between the mass media and terrorists is that the media have come to constitute such a major portion of modern culture that most of today’s terrorists have factored them into their tactics in one way or another” (Biernatzki 21).

However, the flip side of that argument is that the media feels an overwhelming responsibility to cover what is newsworthy, and acts of terror fall under this category.  The study notes:

“Journalists, editors, broadcasters, and even the publishers of online newsletters clearly have obligations in their reporting of terrorism-related news, obligations that are not only ‘ethical,’ but also moral, since what they report or do not report may make the difference between life and death for thousands of people” (Biernatzki 20).

So in this debate there becomes a very blurred line of what role the mass media should play when it comes to the acts of terrorists.  Framing Terrorism discusses news coverage of terrorist events in the context of conventional ‘news frames,’ which essentially give the reporter the ability to analyze and report these types of conflicts “without knowing much, if anything, about the particular people, groups, issues, or even places involved” (Norris 6).

This is where part of the problem arises, because a media system as prevalent as the one that exists in the United States often times presents information that fails to acknowledge the roots of such conflicts from the beginning.  Due to the pressure placed on reporters from unconventional news outlets such as Twitter, there is this manic rush to post any information – whether it is rooted in hard facts or not — online as quickly as possible. The study conducted by Biernatzki touches on this point as well, as it states, “the mass media, in general, are so totally addicted to expanding their audiences and thereby their profits that they are tempted to use any and all means of doing so” (Biernatzki 22).

While this notion does hold great validity in the argument that reporters can sometimes drop the ball on accurate reporting, I don’t think that conventional news frames and media outlets’ desire for profit can hold the weight of the accusation that terrorism stems from the very fact that the media will cover these events.  The Biernatzki study actually points out that placing full blame on the media fails to take into account “the long history of terrorism prior to the development of mass media and of the occurrence of terrorist acts which do not seek publicity” (22).

The Norris book began by asking two questions: “Does media coverage err on the side of group terrorists, lending them legitimacy and credibility, as well as unintentionally encouraging further incidents through a ‘contagion’ effect?  Alternatively, do journalistic conventions err instead on the side of governments, due to over-reliance upon the framework of interpretation offered by public officials, security experts and military commentators, with news functioning ultimately to reinforce support for political leaders and the security policies they implement” (1)?  I don’t think there is a definitive answer as to which way media coverage leans—ideally, it wouldn’t favor either one.

In reality, neither study was able to come to a groundbreaking conclusion about whether the media fed terrorist threats as much as people like Laquer claim that they do.  The reality is that as the expectations for news outlets become loftier, reporters have to meet demands in one way or another — this idea is not limited to terrorism at all.  The media covers acts of terrorism the way it would any other event, only with more emphasis and with a lot more ethical questions arising along the way.  While certain acts of terror may be spurred by the idea that media coverage will shortly follow, it would be overly presumptuous to claim that mass media is single-handedly responsible for acts of terrorism in the United States.

As the notes in Framing Terrorism point out, the threat of terrorism in America is actually greater in perception than in reality in the post-9/11 world — by the very fact that this is something that is important to the American people, the media will continue to cover it, no matter the implications.

The Norris study used the following model to demonstrate the framing process for terrorist events:

Terrorism Flow Chart

The reality is that the media often absorbs so many different viewpoints and perspectives that the supposed standard of objectivity that exists in journalism becomes an arbitrary concept.  In many senses, the notion that the media shouldn’t cover terrorist attacks poses a direct threat to a population that depends on the media to deliver important and timely news.  While it is important for editors, reporters, and journalists to adhere to as many ethical guidelines as possible when covering these events, it is also essential that these events are indeed covered, and that the public has full access to the information as it is received.

Sources:

Biernatzki, William E. “Terrorism and Mass Media.” Communication Research Trends 21.2 (2002): 1-42. Print.

Norris, Pippa, Montague Kern, and Marion R. Just. “Chapter 1.” Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government, and the Public. New York: Routledge, 2003. 1-17. Print.

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