What is the relationship between terrorism and mass media? RUSI Fellow Jessica White explores their interactions in her recent literature review
The mass media is a powerful tool of communication – and one that is exceptionally controversial when it comes to coverage of terrorist attacks. A comprehensive literature review of the academic work on terrorism in the traditional mass media reveals a spectrum of opinion. This spectrum ranges from the media being culpable to the negative impacts of terrorism, due to their broadcasting of terrorist attacks to wider audience than would have immediately been impacted – to the media being victim to terrorist aims, by being manipulated into reproducing terrorist propaganda.
This report found that the most commonly agreed upon position is in the centre of that spectrum – where the traditional mass media and terrorists share a symbiotic relationship – they benefit from each other without one being responsible for the other. There are a range of ways in which the mass media can have a negative or positive impact with terrorism reporting. This paper highlights how enhanced editorial guidelines and reporting practices can help to reduce the negative impact, while enshrining editorial independence and the public’s right to know.
For full findings and recommendations see the report – the following is an abbreviated version:
- Mass media can provide the publicity which terrorists seek. The challenges of this relationship are multiplied in the modern era given the rapid advancement and accelerating pace of the news cycle, due mostly to digital advances.
- Mass media can play a contributory role in amplifying negative impact. While levels of fear are difficult to measure empirically, this research found substantial theoretical agreement that the media can amplify the negative impacts of terrorism and collective levels of public fear.
- Journalists are not neutral. Due to their role in producing news and influencing opinion, journalists can become participants in the radicalisation process. Their discourse and how they frame their reports can have an impact.
- Mass media reporting can contribute to imitation of terrorism. The theory of imitation suggests that imitation of terrorist attacks might occur for the purpose of achieving the same publicity or recognition. This paper found that imitation theory is more useful than contagion theory in explaining how media reporting of terrorist attacks may encourage use of a particular method of attack, for example.
- Ethical codes of practice and responsible reporting guidelines have a positive effect on minimising the negative impacts of reporting. Ethical codes are in place for most traditional media sources and many news organisations have adapted responsible reporting guidelines for different circumstances, such as violent crime and suicide. However, many are not sufficiently adapted for reporting on terrorism specifically.
- Ultimately, it must be recognised that media reporting on terrorism does not affect everyone equally or all the time or always to the same degree. Fear, radicalisation, imitation and other potential negative impacts are unpredictable. Thus, the recommended improvement of responsible reporting guidelines should be balanced with independent reporting and public interest.
In light of the above findings, this paper supports the following key recommendations encouraging the development of guidelines for responsible reporting of terrorism:
- Journalists should be aware that discourse and the way in which media reports are framed can have an impact on levels of fear, the process of radicalisation and the threat of imitation. As with practices developed specific to other issues, such as suicide, responsible reporting guidelines should be defined for terrorism. Discourse and framing should be accurate, balanced, unsensational, and contextual. Avoid emotive language, except when reporting what others have said. Journalists should not use discourse in a way which glamourises or demonises perpetrators of attacks, as this could encourage imitation or perpetuate prejudices. Journalists should be as objective as possible, examining their own preconceived biases and possibly unsubstantiated theories. They should also be up front about their level of expertise on terrorism as well as the sources of their information, to engage the public in a critical debate about the issues.
- Reporting on terrorism needs to be proportionate. Overemphasising the threat of terrorism amplifies its negative impact and may inadvertently advance terrorist objectives. Journalists should be careful of misinformation from terrorist propaganda, the government or other potential actors such as foreign governments.
- Self-imposed ethical codes of practice and responsible reporting guidelines are important to mitigate the negative impacts of reporting on terrorism. These guidelines should be flexible, informed and conscious of the challenges of reporting on terrorism, a particularly nebulous topic. Terrorism experts should be included in the further development of these guidelines, as well as in training journalists and editors on terrorism and the potential impact of their reporting. By encouraging a collective discussion, guidelines could also increase the potential for the media to have a positive effect. Responsibility for content is necessary, while remembering that editorial independence is essential to modern democracy.
Jessica White is a Research Fellow in RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict group. Her expertise encompasses counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism methods, as well as gender mainstreaming in program design, implementation and evaluation. She conducts research on a range of topics, including right-wing extremism and terrorism in the media. She is completing her PhD in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. She holds a MSc in Conflict Resolution from Kingston University London. Before beginning her PhD, Jessica spent six years as an intelligence and language analyst in the United States Navy working on counter-terrorism.