‘Terrorists target innocent people to shake up elected governments’

By Javier Delgado Rivera

The last few weeks have seen a resurgence of terrorist attacks in Europe claimed by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group – also known as ISIS. On the one hand, terrorists target civilians confident that their heinous acts will stir ample media attention and provide global visibility and promotion to their ‘causes’ and beliefs. On the other hand, the mass media capitalizes from the consternation caused by terrorist attacks to produce the kind of dramatic news that draws the attention of its viewers and readers.

Headlines Everyday spoke to Maja Piscevic, vice president and communications director of the EastWest Institute (EWI), to discuss her views on whether mass media and terrorism have become ever more intertwined in a mutually beneficial relationship.

HE: Has the emergence of competing digital media outlets led to the hyper-sensationalization in the way terrorist activity is reported – both by traditional and new media?

MP: Arguably, the new media landscape is a godsend tool for extremists, terrorist organizations and insurgency groups. The wide range of media channels available today (social media, online video content, etc.) are powerful tools, allowing these groups to carry out multiple digital campaigns simultaneously in real time.

The monstrous attacks by terrorist groups receive coverage online because media monetizes stories that draw traffic to their sites. Violence, drama, and their visual depiction feed into this mix, sensationalizing the events. Of course, outlets can claim that they are merely exercising their right to freedom of the press, but there is evident harm in media sensationalism of terrorist activity for the purpose of drawing viewers, since the subsequent publicity gives greater legitimacy to groups like IS.

HE: If it bleeds, it leads. As you mentioned, the media business is primarily driven by ratings and advertisement revenue – public news networks are less reliant on the latter but are equally dependent on the former. Is there a way around this?

MP: Ratings rule all aspects of our lives, including politics, commerce, services and the media. Ratings are nothing but the quantification of demand – an efficient tool for succeeding in the highly competitive environment they operate. The media can hardly be an exception to this principle where demand determines the price (of air time or ad space) and where higher price generates more revenues— a driving principle of market economies.

In this case, it comes down to market share, which means that the objective is to attract (and constantly maintain) the attention of audiences aiming for favorable ratings in order to expand the pool of advertisers, and consequently, ensure profit maximization. Such a hyper-competitive environment forces newsrooms to utilize strategies that best captivate and engage the viewers’ imagination. Unfortunately, this often comes down to an emphasis on sensationalism and fear-based news reporting where the audience is first intrigued “by the bleed” and become addicted to more news.

Of course, there are alternatives, including responsible media outlets with a newsworthy approach rooted in delivering accurate information, facts and analyses. Here, balancing high-quality written and visual content may prove more valuable and enriching.  Unfortunately, not all media is capable of surviving while holding to these values of integrity in today’s highly competitive environment. It may fall on those outlets that can financially afford to maintain these two principles, or on those courageous, progressively minded, grassroots providers reaching out to the more demanding, often better educated and less superficial audiences.

HE: In 2015, several major media outlets reported on how, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, Belgian police killed two jihadists after intercepting suspicious calls. Months later, the CNN told us that the damaged handsets found near the San Bernardino shootings in the US last December helped the FBI track a confidante. Do the media go too far in reporting police findings that may be of some help to bloodthirsty fundamentalists?

The above examples and others that come to mind (like the recent comment by an expert after the Nice attack explaining, live on CNN in great detail, at what angle a bullet should be shot in order to break the windshield of the truck in question), represent cases where too much information is offered for potential misuse. Yet it is very hard to justify that this type of irresponsible coverage is potentially useful to future perpetrators.

It must be a two-way street of accountability shared between the media and the sources that feed them with sensitive information, especially when the information comes from agencies or institutions directly involved in an investigation.

HE: News organizations must balance their duty to inform the public while making sure that terrorists do not find in the media an effective megaphone to spread their twisted justifications. How can journalists apply a greater degree of self-restrain without undermining the basic principles of free speech and society’s right to know?

MP: Both media and terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State strongly rely on audience in order to survive and thrive. IS, for one, is highly sophisticated in its approach to project itself as a global organization, and media outlets aid them in this process. By overstating the threat of IS, the media can often amplify the group’s presence and help disseminate their propaganda globally, what fulfils its communication strategy. The news industry, in turn, increases its viewership and followers. It’s a vicious circle and unfortunate symbiotic scenario in which both parties currently depend.

Since in liberal democracies no government or regulator can stipulate strict and comprehensive rules for media conduct and reporting, an emphasis should be placed in the integrity of media organizations, which should be the cornerstone of the editorial policy of respectable, professional outlets.

So it comes down to a question of choice and restraint especially as regards to the use of disturbing images. If any content should be regulated by law, this is the one area for consideration – forbidding media outlets to show videos of these horrible acts. Creating the atmosphere of fear and existential insecurity is the aim of terrorist organizations and media outlets should by no means aid to this goal. For starters, initiatives like the one recently taken by the French newspaper Le Monde and La Croix to stop using images of terrorist killers are definitely a step in the right direction.

HE: Some media observers believe that terrorists would feel less inclined to commit their atrocities without the guarantee of ample coverage by news rooms. Do you agree?

MP: Terrorists target innocent people to shake up elected governments by exposing their inability to protect their constituencies and the rest of the world. Thousands of innocent people dying in the streets of Brussels, Paris, Nice, across Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and many other countries, are terrorists’ tools for political gain – a means to an end.  Your question is a rhetorical one. It is impossible to even imagine the media not reporting how innocent people are slaughtered in the streets of our cities.