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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography

This article discusses two aspects that are important for understanding the relationship between Western news media and terrorism: the changing representation of terrorists and terrorist attacks in the media and, with it, the changing definition of terrorism. By calling attention to evolving news media practices in times of terrorism, I argue that advanced communication technologies and the emergence of global media ecology since the 1990s has made terrorism more visible in both national and international media landscapes. One result is that the more the news media expose terrorism to global audiences via the “front door,” the more controversial the use of the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” become in social, political, and scholarly discourses. The paper addresses the evolving journalistic practices and their consequences as documented in previous studies on media reporting of terrorism in several national contexts, mostly the UK, the United States, and Israel.


Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography

Classic definitions of terrorism evolved in a world in which a modernist view reigned supreme. Despite constant debates about how to define the term (Gibbs 1989; Nacos 2007; Schlesinger 1981; Schmid 1983), one conventional definition, at least under US law, is characteristic of a nationalistic perception that considers terrorism a “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”1 This definition was valid in a period in which terrorism was mainly contained within the borders of nation-states and when the print media and nationwide broadcasting channels were the public's main sources of information. At that time, scholars pointed to a symbiotic relationship between media and terrorists: while the former sell more broadsheets or attract more viewers, the latter are rewarded with publicity for their causes and interests (Dowling 1986; Laqueur 1976; Weimann and Winn 1993). It was generally agreed that whether terrorism was directed at achieving political aims, exerting public pressure on decision makers to negotiate an ad hoc case, or spreading shock and fear, it relied on the media for realizing its aims (Nacos 1996, 2007; Paletz and Schmid 1992; Schmid and de Graaf 1982). Moreover, it was generally agreed that while representatives of the elite were free to address the media at any time (crossing the threshold through the front door), the only option open for radical groups to penetrate the media was via the back door, that is, by inflicting violence (Wolfsfeld 1991, 1997). Hence, an equation with a negative side effect emerged for terrorist groups during the 1970s and 1980s: The more violence inflicted, the greater the chance of media coverage and exposure to the public. There was also, however, a greater chance that the coverage would be negative and therefore act as a boomerang (Schlesinger et al. 1983).

Against this backdrop, scholars, experts, and policy makers debated the normative question of how to stop terrorism. In line with liberal and rational principles of the free market of ideas, some argued that if radical groups were given a voice on a regular basis, their motivation to act violently would be reduced significantly. Others, like Margaret Thatcher and Benjamin Netanyahu, demonstrated their counterargument through metaphors such as “the media is the oxygen of terrorism,” or “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it would not make a sound.” The lesson they were trying to teach was that preventing terrorists from getting publicity would reduce their motivation to act (Nacos 2000). On the practical level, terrorist groups such as the IRA (Irish Republican Army), the Red Brigades, and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) were perceived as internal national threats, handled in the domestic sphere, even if they had international connections. This meant that within nation-states, terrorist acts were reported and domesticated in line with specific national narratives and cultural myths (Kampf 2006; Nossek and Berkowitz 2006; Wagner-Pacifici 1986); while outside their borders, distant terrorist acts received relatively minor consideration. According to Norris et al. (2003), the importance of having a local angle in news reporting on international terrorism during the 1970s and 1980s led the American media to pay little attention to most terrorist attacks around the world. They found that between 1968 and 1980, fewer than 20 percent of terrorist attacks were reported by the three main US television networks. The numbers declined further in the 1990s, when international terrorist attacks occurred less frequently.

Within nation-states, governments tried to limit the effects of terrorism by controlling its (non-)appearance in nationwide media. Restricting the visibility of terrorism was accomplished through legislation, pressure on national media, or by negotiations and understandings reached with media institutions. The institutions followed suit, adopting internal directives for limiting coverage (Weimann 1999). In the case of the IRA (from the 1970s until the mid-1990s), laws in Britain prohibiting interviewing terrorists in the media led to rifts between the government and media organizations in several cases (Wilson 1997). During the 1980s, this took the form of banning interviews with leaders of the IRA (since showing the enemy on television would endow them status [Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948]). Later, in John Major's era (1990–1997), the rules were somewhat loosened, allowing such interviews, but with the faces of the interviewees covered, their answers dubbed, and the questions and answers approved in advance. Likewise, in the Israeli case, interviewing Palestinians was prohibited by law until the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993. When Israeli journalists did not toe the line – as in the case of journalists Uri Avneri and Anat Saragusty interviewing Yasser Arafat in Beirut in 1982, during the Lebanon War – the government carried out sanctions against broadcasting institutions and individual reporters (Liebes et al. 2008).

When both terrorism and media were operating within the boundaries of a nation-state, governments could limit the terrorists' capacity to exploit the media to create public anxiety, enhance their bargaining power while holding hostages, and communicate with their own supporters. The political elite's efforts to restrict the media from reporting and the compliance of reporters to the institutional decree paved the way for scholarly criticism aimed against both the media and the political establishment for silencing the opposition. Mainstream political communication scholars suggested that when terrorists strike, the media waive their independence and tend to adopt the official framing (Bennett 2009; Entman 2004). Scholars have also suggested, however, that at the later stages of crisis, journalists reclaim their independence by expressing their critical voices (Schudson 2002) and incorporate dissident actors in their reports (Entman 2004; Robinson et al. 2010). Although media adoption of governments' framing in reporting on terrorism has been documented in several national contexts in the last two decades (Dor 2004; Norris et al. 2003), several reasons, on which I elaborate in the next section, have led to transformations in the relationship between media and terrorism. In what follows, I discuss how the cracks in news-media cooperation with the political establishment have been widening since the 1990s.

Watching terrorist attacks live on television

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography

The debate over how to treat terrorist attacks and terrorists was not decided following a rational Habermassian-style decision-making process, but was the result of several transformations, at least two of which are related to the media: the emergence of advanced technologies of broadcasting, allowing for more immediacy and visibility, and the globalization of the heretofore national media, allowing national newspapers and broadcasters to provide a stage for dissident actors without automatically being accused of cooperating with terrorists. Moreover, connections among terrorist organizations in various countries became closer, turning terrorist groups into international networks. These connections were facilitated by the emergence of social media technologies, making it easier to diffuse messages among terrorist organizations and recruit new supporters (Weimann 2006).

The emergence of advanced broadcasting technologies, especially related to television, allowed for the rise of the breaking-news genre – that is, live marathon broadcasts during and in the wake of war (Katz 1992), multi-victim attacks (Liebes 1998) or natural disasters. The ability of the political establishment to control information suffered another blow from new competing media channels that broadcast around the clock and was viewed beyond the state's borders, with each quoting everyone else, and with every channel doing its best to attract viewers. Thus, new broadcasting technologies made the former questions of whether and how to give publicity to terrorists somewhat redundant. This new format, shaped by technological developments that allow for simultaneous live transmission from multiple locations, disintermediated the function of the editor thereby abandoning broadcasting to the improvisations and emotional responses of journalists on site (Blondheim and Liebes 2002; Witzthum 2006). The rationale for airing terrorist attacks was that if media technologies afford it; journalists in democratic states must apply it in order to serve the public's right to know (Jaasari and Olsson 2011; Kampf and Liebes 2013).

The new rules of the game were set: if terrorists strike, the media were there to report. Nevertheless, the disaster-marathon genre led to public criticism of journalists for playing into terrorists' hands, that is, inadvertently doing them a service (Liebes 1998). The media, in this case, relinquished control to a subversive player, the terrorist as the producer and actor of the terrorists attack (Katz 2009). It did so by disrupting the regular TV schedule, taking the captive audience to the site of the attack. There, TV exposed its viewers to the horrors of dead and injured victims and to the words of shocked witnesses, broken-hearted relatives, and politicians competing to be first on the scene. In between, it incorporated reports from the police and hospitals and repeatedly recycled horrific images and emotional sound bites.

Public criticism also focused on the issue of the media disseminating fear and demoralization. One case in point is public disapproval in Israel following a 72-hour live broadcast by Israel's public TV channel in the wake of a series of terrorist bus attacks carried out by the Hamas organization in March 1996. Academics and left-wing Israeli politicians accused the channel of increasing the impact of terrorism and playing into the hands of the opposition to the Oslo peace process, both through the obsessive preoccupation with the events and the “whining” delivery style of its anchor (Liebes 1998). In the United States, on September 11, instead of taking the lead, anchors and reporters abandoned their distanced position and joined the public to watch the violent spectacle with bewilderment and amazement (Chouliaraki 2004; Jaworski et al. 2008). The various news media ended up disseminating traumatic images of fear and death (Zelizer 2002; Zelizer and Allan 2002), resulting in psychological effects on American viewers (Ahern et al. 2002; Schuster et al. 2001).

Another problem with this genre is that the airing of opinions based on emotional reasoning (i.e., revenge) may put pressure on decision makers to act in a populist manner (for a counter claim, see Gowing 2003). Following a terrorists attack, reporters at the scene look for individuals who were slightly injured, family members of victims, and witnesses to the horror of violence. These actors receive the primetime stage to describe their emotions, experiences, and opinions about what action policy makers should take. This means that during the most traumatic moment of their lives, individuals are asked to offer policy advice to both the public and the government. Despite the fact that it looks as if the victims interviewed are genuine representatives of society, their retaliatory, emotion-based suggestions stood in direct contrast to the public interest. This approach prevented a discussion that would take into account the long-term implications of the terrorists attack and the institutional response (Liebes 1998).

Last, the live disaster-marathon genre makes the function of the editor redundant, leaving the anchor in the studio and the reporter on-site to invent a story on the spot by recycling sound bites, chasing possible interviewees, and speculating about what happened, who carried it out, and why (Witzthum 2006). We should recall that since the very beginnings of professional journalism, the most important journalistic position has been that of the editor, responsible for providing a broad, in-depth, and accurate view of events perceived as meaningful for the public. However, the various subgenres of live reporting have marginalized the editor, therefore, benefitting drama, action, and immediacy. This is what Katz wrote about the consequences of the deteriorating status of the editor to the journalistic profession in the context of the CNN (Cable News Network) live, ongoing report during the Gulf War of the early 1990s:

Rather than collecting information and trying to make sense of it in time for the evening news broadcast, the CNN ideal is to do simultaneous, almost live editing, or better yet, no editing at all. CNN journalism almost wants to be wrong (Katz 1992, 9).

Getting to know the people behind the black masks

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography

Although live marathon broadcasts of terrorism make for controversial journalism, their format does not deviate from the principle of covering terrorism only in reaction to attacks. The significant upgrading of the status of terrorists in the media following September 11, 2001, may be understood as the result of the acknowledgement that terrorists are just another regular source on the editorial list. This new role means they are regularly monitored, their reactions to relevant events are sought, their threats are given central space, and journalists take risks to reach their hiding places for an “inside look” and an exclusive scoop. Terrorists in Afghanistan, Baghdad, Gaza, and elsewhere no longer need to act in order to appear: they have been acknowledged as an institutional news source. This change means that terrorists, in the past perceived as despicable, their voices illegitimate, have become a new category of news figure. Journalists seek them out to discover the “face behind the news” in an attempt to understand their motives, environment, and vision and to present them to press and television audiences in the West (Liebes and Kampf 2004).

The establishment during the 1980s and 1990s of nation-based global channels (i.e., CNN and Sky) broadcasting to global audiences, the emergence of satellite channels in the Arab world (i.e., Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya) and the social media revolution in the first decade of the 21st century have all contributed to another transformation in the rules of the game. With Western nations exposed to most international news channels (Price 2009), their nationwide media cannot flagrantly deviate from what is shown there. As a result, mass media in Western societies have expanded their orientation from being mainly concerned with national issues to allowing alternative perspectives to filter in from time to time (Balmas et al. 2011; Orgad 2009). One example was documented following the 2004 Madrid terrorist attacks, with the global media playing an important role in disseminating to the Spanish public alternative perspectives to the one put forward by their own government (Orgad 2008). Moreover, the emergence of satellite channels in the Arab world at the outset of 2000 supplies a constant stream of voices and images from non-Western perspectives (El-Nawawy and Iskandar 2002). For example, Figenschou (2012) shows how Al Jazeera English gave a voice to Ahmad Muhammad Harun, the former Minister for the Interior in the Sudanese government. The interview with Harun was empathetic, despite that he was accused of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A look at the various new formats for covering terrorists reveals different types of deviations from heretofore accepted journalistic practices that characterized earlier stages of terrorism reporting. One is the airing of self-produced tapes by terrorists, consisting of a formal public address, in which they directly appeal to “fan” and/or “enemy” audiences, encouraging the former and threatening the latter. Between 11 September 2001 and May 2011, no fewer than 80 audio and video segments were sent by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri to Arab media channels and later distributed around the globe. Second, in contrast to the past, terrorists today appear in various types of news interviews. One format is labeled “quasi-interview,” in which journalistic control is compromised by delegating the job to proxies who have access to the terrorist, as in the case of CNN's collaboration with Al Jazeera in 2001 in the first interview with bin Laden following the 11 September attacks (Kampf and Liebes 2013). Another type of interview is conducted with terrorists who were caught and are imprisoned. Interestingly, such practices may have surprising outcomes. Maoz (2008) and Rosenberg and Maoz's (2012) studies of Israeli Jewish perceptions following the viewing of an interview with a female Palestinian terrorist caught by Israeli security forces on her way to carry out a suicide bombing found that politically “dovish” and “hawkish” viewers expressed positive emotions toward the interviewee. These emotions emerged following the humanizing frame of the interview, through which the terrorist was seen as a fragile, suffering, and sympathetic person.

Third, at times “backpack” or “performer” journalists venture into terrorists' territory in an attempt to create direct contact with subjects in their hiding places (Liebes and Kampf 2009; Tumber and Webster 2006). One example is Newsweek's Scott Johnson (18 August 2003), who found and interviewed the Muhammad Army, a group of terrorists in Baghdad sought by US security forces. Unlike US military forces, Johnson managed to enter their most secret, well-defended hideaway. A second example can be found in the embedded mission in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan of Sky News' chief correspondent, Stuart Ramsay. Unlike most embedded journalists who join their own nation's troops, Ramsay was invited to join an elite unit of the Taliban on their way to “lay the bombs that have maimed, injured and killed so many British and American soldiers” (21 October 2010).

Other “subversive” genres can be found in weekend supplements (and their TV equivalents): these are human stories and character profiles of terrorists. These items present a range of humanizing stories, sociologically or psychologically oriented. During the 2000s, many such stories were published based on making contact with terrorists or their families, childhood friends, foes, teachers, and colleagues. In several cases, journalists turned to sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists for their opinions. Zooming in on the profile of terrorists who have died or vanished, they invade their lives, speculating about how they transformed into terrorists, what caused them to abandon their former lives, who influenced them, and what could have saved them. Personalization thus skirts around the political issues of terrorist actions and ideologies, choosing a popular way of exposing the tragedy of an individual in stories disconnected from their acts of destruction and consequent ramifications (Liebes and Kampf 2004).

New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography

The debate has been decided. In today's complex, diffused, and globalized media ecology consisting of global broadcasting networks, internet websites, and social media, terrorists have gained access to the media and to public discourse, mostly via the front door. Although media coverage of terrorists and terrorism still tends towards the negative side of the continuum, contemporary debate over the mere use of the term terrorism may suggest more understanding than in the past for some uses of violence against civilians. The general agreement on the definition of terrorism that preceded debate at the start of the 2000s in the US media and in Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia was that national terrorism against occupation is legitimate, while terrorist acts against or for ideology (as in the bin Laden case) are not (Kampf and Liebes 2013). Such a distinction was adopted, for example, by the Washington Post when it labeled members of the Palestinian Hamas group “militants” and members of al Qaeda “terrorists.” The explanation provided by the newspaper's ombudsman (21 September 2003) for the distinction was that “Hamas conducts terrorism but also has territorial ambitions, is a nationalist movement and conducts some social work…al Qaeda exists only as a terrorist network.”

Moreover, as some argue, the use of the word terrorist has today become politically incorrect, almost taboo (Moeller 2009). In the context of global broadcasting networks catering content to a verity of audiences with a wide range of ideological inclinations, reporters find it inconvenient to use the terms terrorism or terrorists. Thus, for example, a few days after the 7 July 2005 Underground and bus attacks in London that killed 52 civilians, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) decided to replace the term terrorists with the allegedly more neutral “bombers.” This controversial decision aroused public debate in the UK over the meaning of such journalistic rhetoric of objectivity (Moeller 2009).

Whereas some contemporary editors, critics, and social scientists merely undermine the traditional definition of terrorism, some turn it on its head. Current debates on the morality of “war on terror” go so far as to expand the meaning of the term by referring to Western nation-states as perpetrators of terrorism. Thus, for example, in 2008, one group of scholars established a journal entitled Critical Studies in Terrorism (CST). According to the journal's editorial team (Smyth et al. 2008), terrorism is a negligible phenomenon whose centrality is the result of manipulative construction by the media, which serves as an arm of the political establishment. Magnifying terrorism serves Western governments for their political violent ends and, as a result, “millions of people around the world and entire communities and countries, experience state terrorism on a daily basis” (Smyth et al. 2008, 3). Even more blatant is the claim made in the book Counter-Terrorism and State Political Violence: The “War on Terror” as Terror. According to Poynting and Whyte (2012, 1), the main aim of contemporary critical scholars of terrorism is to bring “the state back in to the study of terrorism” and to challenge the impression according to which Western states are “always the victims and never the perpetrators of terrorism.”

To conclude, the transforming relationships between the news media and terrorism can be subdivided into three periods of time. During the first stage, terrorist attacks were represented and framed in the evening news or in the next day's newspaper; during the second, they were seen only a few minutes following their occurrence, with terrorists able to disrupt the regular broadcasting schedule for their own purposes; during the third, terrorists became almost regular news sources, with the media seeking their opinion without direct relationship to a specific act they performed. Interestingly, the more openness the news media show, allowing terrorists to enter public discourse via the front door, the less legitimacy there is for the social, political, and scholarly use of the terms “terrorism” and “terrorists.”

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Terrorism, media, and the nation (or reading about terrorists in the next day's newspaper)
  4. Watching terrorist attacks live on television
  5. Getting to know the people behind the black masks
  6. New visibility, less legitimacy: how the word “terrorism” became politically incorrect
  7. Note
  8. References
  9. Biography
  • Zohar Kampf is Senior Lecturer of Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. He has published widely on the theme of Media and Terrorism in leading journals including the International Journal of Press/Politics, Political Communication, and Semiotica. He is the co-editor of a special issue of the Communication Review titled “Who's the Bigger Brother? How war aggravates the relationships among media, government, and the public” (2009) and the author of Transforming Media Coverage of Violent Conflicts: The New Face of War (with Tamar Liebes; 2013)