Should Terrorists Be Starved Of The Oxygen of Publicity?
Gemma Milneon 28 February, 2017 at 10:02
It seems there isn’t a day that goes by without mention of terrorism in the mainstream news. Whether it is commentary on changes in public policy or – god forbid – coverage of another attack, we cannot escape the almost constant barrage of words, pictures, videos and opinions highlighting the effect of terrorism on the Western world.
But is it too much? Are we simply giving the terrorists what they want by sensationalising these acts of violence and continuing the running commentary beyond the attacks themselves? In an Intelligence Squared panel chaired by Clarissa Ward, Senior CNN International Correspondent, experts gathered to discuss just that.
Amongst conversation surrounding the true threat of terrorism to the vast majority of the population, how much restraint the media should employ in their coverage, and which words should and shouldn’t be used to describe the people and ideologies behind these atrocities; there was something akin to true audience engagement.
‘If you think they should be starved – why are you here?’ The opening words of Simon Jenkins, one of the UK’s leading commentators, pointed a direct responsibility straight to those in the room. He continued: “We can only be threatened by our reaction to them – that’s the difference between terror and killing.”
The goal of terrorism is not just violence, but changing minds and behaviour as a result of invoking fear. By allowing acts of terror to affect much broader populations than those physically targeted, the media are closing the loop for the attackers.
Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at LSE, argued for a quieter press surrounding terrorist attacks, suggesting that “by inflating terrorism, we are only terrorising ourselves.”
But as Ward pointed out, the media have a responsibility to their audiences, who want to know what’s going on. “It’s all very well us acting all lofty and saying it’s not strategic to cover this news, but that’s not what they want”. So is covering terrorism simply part of a journalist’s job?
Douglas Murray, Associate Director at The Henry Jackson Society and award-winning political commentator, argued that responsibility for making decisions around terrorism consumption isn’t fully in the hands of the media. “We can say ‘It’s what the public want’, but the public is not this big amorphous body – what about all of our responsibility in what we consume and what we click?”
There’s an irony in commenting on whether or not speaking about something is the right or wrong thing to do, and clearly there is more work to be done on the side of the media to come to some kind of agreement on how much is too much. But the bigger question is how to communicate to the public the fact that by consuming media coverage of terrorism, they are taking part in terrorism itself. Everything we consume will have some impact on our thoughts and feelings around a topic – whether that’s to a large or small degree is irrelevant, the point being that many are likely unaware that their attention is more damaging to the democracy the terrorists are attacking.
It’s like the famous Guardian advert about the Three Little Pigs – the evolving media coverage of the story influenced the evolution of public opinion – but this is not a new realisation about the effect of journalism on society. Terrorism media is not just observation and commentary, it is a direct participation, and as citizens we have a responsibility to decide to what extent we want to take part.
Even reading these words right now – are we giving oxygen to a relatively small scale battle, turning it into a war?
In a world where the media industry are fighting for engagement with the audience they are speaking to, it’s as if there’s a sinister lesson in reaching out to hearts and minds. As the saying goes, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, so even if the public were fully aware of the damage being done in extensive coverage, would we choose to shut eyes and stick fingers in ears?
The debate is far from over – with divided opinion in the newsroom, contradictory evidence coming out of universities, and unstable times in the global political climate, much more is still to be said.
The question is – will you continue to listen?