Media Coverage of Terrorism and Violent Crimes: Call for a Rethink

By The Rainbow

The important question of the relationship between media coverage of terrorism and the impact of such media depiction on the rest of us ordinary citizens has continued to generate debates and commentaries in different climes.  As a matter of fact, many informed persons, viz: Brigitte Nacos (2000), Boaz Ganor (2002), Bruce Hoffman (2006), Asogwa 2012 etc, have treated extensively this very topical issue.  It is however, a measure of its importance and direct relevance to the contemporary security challenges confronting Nigeria today that I am, as it were, adding my own voice to the numerous views on the subject matter.

The topicality of the subject is so pronounced that two broad schools of thought have emerged. The first echoes the remonstration by the former British Prime Minister, late Margret Thatcher, that media coverage is 'the Oxygen of terrorism', therefore, the way to manage it is not to report it. The other view however, is that championed by the likes of Rick Van Amersfool and David Hohmes, which opines that reporting crime and terrorism is both beneficial to the media, the state and its agencies as well as the public.

Time and space would not allow me to dwell extensively on these interesting schools of thought. My position however is that in engaging in reportage of this nature, the media should resist the urge for sensationalism, outright falsehood and unnecessary exaggeration  and be guided by well tested ethics of the profession - objectivity, control and that which promote healthy values in society. I am also of the view that the media has a crucial role to play in the delicate act of nation-building. Thus, media practitioners should deliberately work towards building a strong synergy between them and the law enforcement agencies in the task of ensuring safety of lives and property and addressing the scourge of terrorism. But first, let us pause a bit and ask ourselves: what is crime and terrorism?

Crime can be defined as any act or omission which violates the law and which is punishable upon conviction. An online encyclopaedia defines crime as 'the breaking of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a conviction'.  It is the commission of an act that is forbidden or the omission of a duty that is commanded by a public law which ultimately makes the offender liable to punishment by the law.

Unlike crime, the word terrorism has multivalent definitions and has no universally accepted meaning. What in a place may be construed as terrorism, in another place may simply be regarded as actions done to gain political and religious freedom. Thus, many would argue that the erstwhile militancy in the Niger Delta does not merit the nomenclature of terrorism. Notwithstanding these observations, we would highlight two definitions of terrorism in this write up.

According to the US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), terrorism and terrorist attacks are 'the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation'.  Another definition sees it as a 'calculated and extreme use of violence or threatened violence, perpetuated by malice to cause serious harm or violence against individuals, governments and their assets with the intention to attain political, religious or ideological goals through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear on civilian population'.

What is evident from these definitions is that terrorism, as well as crime, poses a grave threat to national security and the lives and property of individuals around the globe. While all terror acts amount to crimes, not all crimes amount to terrorism.
This then brings us back to our central theme, that is: how media coverage of terrorism and violent crimes impact on the overall wellbeing of the rest of us. My concern here is how we can manage our media coverage of terror activities in such a way that we do not inadvertently promote the cause of the criminals and terrorists or unconsciously turn our media outfits to external PR organs for terrorist interests.

In order to appreciate how media coverage impacts on terrorism, there is need to know what motivates criminals and terrorists in their quest to unleash terror and anarchy in society.
Evident in the definitions of crime and terrorism above is the penchant of these terrorists to raise the tempo of insecurity, induce fears about personal and collective security so as to advance their nefarious goals. To achieve these objectives, the terrorist needs the media much more than a child needs the mother's breast milk or a thirsty man his water. It is no wonder that Thatcher saw media publicity as the oxygen of terrorism (Muller 2003:65; Vieira 1991:73-85).  Gerges (2005:194-197) illuminates this view by drawing attention to the fact that terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri were believed to be obsessed  'with the international media because of their basic need for attention'.

To gain attention of the media, terrorists carefully plan and select targets of attack that would attract maximum media coverage. A few examples here perhaps may suffice to illustrate this tendency:  In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, while every eye was glued to the Games, the Palestinian terrorists struck and kidnapped Israeli athletes and thus monopolised the attention of the global television's estimated 800 million audiences. The same argument informed the attack by terrorists on the Transit System in London during the G-8 Summit on July 7, 2005 in neighbouring Scotland.
Both the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States by Al-Qaida and the insensate attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the American Airliner, Airbus A330 - 300 on December 25, 2009 were all attempts by these vectors of violence to gain attention of the media.

In addition to gaining the attention of the public, terrorists also use the media to inform, publicise or inflict the public with their political causes, motives and rationale for resorting to violence. Through this, they hope to win the sympathy or empathy of the public and new converts to their cause(s), particularly from those whose cause they claim to fight.  In Nigeria the unguarded attacks on the Police Headquarters Abuja on June 16, 2011, the UN building in Abuja on August 26, 2011 and other institutions of the State as well as the deliberate targeting of churches are well organised attacks intended to attract maximum attention and publicity.
Given these motives, terrorists usually carry out their attacks intentionally and strategically with full desire and craving for media coverage to enable them realise their goals. The terrorists’ quest for publicity has been greatly aided by the new and emerging media now at their disposal and discretion to publicise their messages to wider audiences.

The media's response to crime/terrorism in Nigeria has rather been ambivalent. In some instances, the media has done extremely well in partnering the police and other law enforcement agencies in combating crimes and criminality in our society. But in other instances, some sections of the media have played roles that are, to say the least, lamentable. The bizarre and gory tales of destruction, tears, blood and fatalities perpetrated by these monsters are what we find everyday on these sections of the media.

The often repeated stories about the activities of these agents of darkness by our numerous media outlets usually send the wrong and unintended signals about their invincibility and help to create a pall of gloom and despondency all over the country.
But perhaps the most worrisome is the tendency of some media practitioners to engage in sensationalism and emotionalism, all in a bid to promote sales and profit in the unrestrained spirit of capitalism.  While all these are happening, our common adversary - the hoodlums and terrorist – are savouring the gains of free publicity and extra psychological mileage.

We understand and fully appreciate the allure and attraction of the media to violence and extraordinary incidents.  As has been acknowledged by most commentators, terrorism is an attractive boon for media coverage, mainly because terrorist attacks make viewer ratings surge and profits increase. They contend that terrorism has many aspects which make it a very attractive subject for the media, as it has the elements of theatre, danger, blood, human tragedy, miracle stories, heroes, shocking footage and action.

Another reason is that violence is a central and defining quality in contemporary television culture and is critical to the semiotic and financial momentum of contemporary media organisations.  Much as the media have always been interested in reporting terrorism, the recent proliferation of television and radio channels and the emergence of mega - media organisations have led to greater competitions and insatiable appetites for shocking, sensational 'infotainment' that is believed to keep audience captivated, boost ratings and circulation and increase profits (Nacos, 2006).

We fully identify with the view by Mc Quail (2010) that the 'Media can and should be held to account for the quality, means and consequences of their publishing activities to society in general and/or to other interests that may be affected'. We expect the media to stop feeding the public with publications and broadcasts which border on sentiments and emotions and restrain themselves from writing subjective stories, especially ones capable of causing apathy, hatred, despondency and xenophobia in our society.

Similarly, we appreciate the importance of a strong, free and incorruptible press in the affairs of any modern state. Thus, we are not, and will not canvass for the restriction of the freedom of the media in any way. We however recommend a responsive and responsible reportage in line with our national interests and the prevailing security challenges of the nation. We advocate a new regime of self-censorship and perhaps, peer review by media owners and practitioners as part of their contributions to the war against terror.

Finally, as we intensify our onslaught against terrorism and other violent crimes, we appeal for the support and cooperation of the media. We advocate the prioritisation of our national interests above other narrow considerations. The truth is that if we must defeat terrorists and their collaborators, we must among other things stop giving them unmerited fame and publicity. We must collectively advance our common cause and remedies, while simultaneously suppressing their villainy and destructive tendencies.