When an explosion killed 22 people at a concert in Manchester, England, late Monday, media organizations across the English speaking world rushed to break the news.
That was the right call.
An apparent mass murder of that scale is newsworthy. A self-governing people cannot shrink from facing the reality of terrorism. There are perpetrators to catch, victims to mourn, and survivors to help. And large majorities of the public want to be informed when a probable terrorist attack is perpetrated inside a major Western city.
Unfortunately, the very act of publicizing an act of terrorism cannot help but advance the ends of terrorists, who try to generate as much media attention as possible to stoke fear.
That tension ought to inform coverage of terrorist attacks more than it does.
There was a time when the ideological right was foremost in asserting a similar position. Here’s conservative hero Margaret Thatcher speaking on the subject in 1985:
Civilised societies cannot use the weapons of terrorism to fight the terrorist. But we must take every possible precaution to protect ourselves … And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?
In our own era, the American right’s leading politician, Donald Trump, complained that the media was not giving terrorists enough attention (his assessment of coverage proved inaccurate). The outlets most friendly to him reflect that desire for more coverage. But this needn’t be a partisan or ideological matter, insofar as simple changes can improve the coverage of terrorism that is published without eliminating it.
First and foremost, even early reports of a terrorist attack should include more context to help distraught readers and viewers make informed assessments of the threat terrorism poses to them and their families, the question that will be on many of their minds.
In a 2015 Pricenomics analysis, Nemil Dalal found that “terrorism deaths are the single most heavily covered type of death per capita in the first pages of the New York Times compared to every other way a human can die.” That approach inevitably creates a false impression that terrorism is a major source of death in Europe and the U.S. The appropriate response is not to stop running articles about terrorism––it is to adopt the default inclusion of contextual information like this chart:
The original post has several more sorts of charts that would help news consumers come to more accurate understandings about terrorism in the United States and abroad.
The style of coverage matters, too.
Here is the Washington Post web site as it appeared late Monday night:
Here is Fox News:
And here is The Drudge Report:
My preference among these is the Washington Post, because it conveys both that this is a significant story … and that it is not the only story in the world. In comparison, the style decisions that Fox News and the Drudge Report made convey that if a terrorist succeeds in an attack on a Western city, everything else stops. They get our full attention.
When an approach to coverage conveys reality better and is less useful to terrorists, it seems like a no-brainer to adopt that approach, even if is presumably worse for web traffic.
Now compare the Washington Post to Breitbart:
The visual differences are comparable to a broadsheet newspaper and a tabloid, with the latter indulging in more sensationalism—the blood red font, the garish details.
The Washington Post conveys the awful facts as if that is enough. Admittedly, I prefer the staid approach to the tabloid approach as a general matter. But when it comes to terrorism, I believe civilization would be better off, and terrorist groups would be worse off, if the “tabloids” played attack aftermath stories more like the broadsheets. Look again. If you were a terrorist, which would you want on America’s screens? Tabloid tropes tap emotions and better lend themselves to spreading terror.
Some researchers go even farther and question the approach of the broadsheets. As one account in The Guardian explained it:
Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia, and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 as reported in the New York Times… “Terrorist organisations receive extensive media attention,” Jetter says. “Whether it is the Taliban, al-Qaida, Boko Haram or, recently, Isis, terrorism is everywhere on TV stations, newspapers and the radio.”
“We also know that terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear and recruit followers. However, until now we did not know whether media attention actively encourages terrorist attacks. This paper derives an empirical methodology to provide an answer to that question.” Jetter compared headline-grabbing terrorist attacks with those that occurred during a bigger story, such as a natural disaster, and found a clear link between the number of articles devoted to the initial terrorist incident and the number of follow-up attacks over the next few weeks.
Even if further research bears out those findings, I do not believe it desirable, or tenable, for terrorist attacks to go unreported. But a United Nations report was persuasive when declaring, “the relationship between terrorism and media is complex and fraught. At its worst, it is a perverse symbiotic relationship – terrorist groups devising spectacles of violence to continue drawing the world’s attention, and the media incentivised to provide wall-to-wall coverage due to huge audience interest.”
Or as Brian Jenkins put it, “Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims.”
My thoughts are far from the last word on how media organizations should respond. But I find it strange that the surfeit of tabloid-style sensationalism after terrorist attacks is published without much debate or even awareness of possibly perverse consequences. Even merely stoking needless fear in Americans would be harmful.
To report on that which is frightening cannot be avoided. But media organizations can avoid omitting context or adding sensational elements that exacerbate public fears.
More of them should. And in the social media era, everyone has a role to play. Refrain from sharing articles on this subject that lack context or needlessly sensationalize.
Don’t spread any more fear than the facts justify.