Would there still be worldwide terrorism if the media wasn’t involved?

“Terror at London Bridge” (Sunday Express, June 4, 2017) Terrorism. It seems to be on the cover of every newspaper or the key story of a news bulletin at least once a week and there seems to be no indication of it slowing down. It has created mayhem and havoc in many cities and national security levels have increased subsequently. The Oxford dictionary defines terrorism “as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political claims”. There is not one universal definition for terrorism as it comes in many forms and with different objectives. In America’s FBI unit focused on policy and counter terrorism they define terrorism as “a violent act or an act dangerous to human life in violation of criminal laws which aims to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. The FBI’s definition encapsulates the full reach of terrorism and all the different factors that are associated with it. There are two main types of terrorism, domestic and international terrorism. Domestic terrorism is acts of terror which are committed in the country that the terrorist resides or operates in. International terrorism includes acts of terror committed by individuals affiliated with foreign countries. This is often done to advance political claims and share their ideologies around the world.

Society’s perspective on the fight against terrorism is often pictured on the ground with heavy weaponry but in reality, the fight happens in cyber space. This is greatly influenced by the media who have a key role in the terrorist’s actions. Which side of the fight are they on? Laquer states “the success of a terrorist organisation depends almost entirely on the amount of publicity it receives”. There is a clear symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media. Terrorism feeds off the media’s publicity and without it they would not be able to survive. Furthermore, the media needs large audiences for their financial gain and news stories with violence and destruction achieve this because the public want to know what has happened and if anyone they know is involved. Terrorism is the ideal way for them to attract viewers and spread the news all around the world. The media allows for anybody with a plan of destruction to have their crime broadcasted across the entire world. One man, an unknown person carrying three bombs, detonating them in a capital city and in 2 hours the entire world will know about it. In the 2016 Brussels terrorist attack, three unknown men were able to achieve this with two-thirds of their attack taking place in an important, public place, the airport. Terrorists do not even need to make deals or bribes with media organisations because they know that as soon as they commit their crime the media will be there.

This relationship between the media and terrorism is deadly. There is no doubt about that but there seems to be no other way to downplay terrorism activities when human lives are involved. Baran explains the relationship by arguing “without the media’s coverage, the acts’ impact is arguably wasted, remaining narrowly confined to the immediate victim(s) of the attack, rather than reaching the wider ‘target audience’ at whom the terrorist’ violence is actually aimed”. This means that how the audiences react to the incident is just as important as the incident itself. To achieve this, terrorists select the places where they will carry out their acts with detailed planning. Examples of this are the 9/11 attacks where the media covered the story almost immediately. This is the same for the lint café siege in Sydney where a major broadcasting corporation was located directly opposite to the building.  Terrorists aim to be treated like legitimate world leaders, and provide an explanation to their radical actions. The media is a tool for the terrorists to gain the most out of their actions, therefore they carry out strategic plans to achieve this. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, supports this, stating, “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”.

The advancement of technology in the last couple of decades has greatly increased the power that terrorists have. Just a couple of decades ago, the acts of terrorists would have minimal impact due to the length of time that it would take to communicate to a wide audience. The new and emerging media has made it easier than ever to communicate with the rest of the world and therefore aiding the terrorist’s efforts. Stories that relate to danger, crime, violence and heroic stories are what draws people into watching the news. Currently the majority of news stories relate to negative events that have happened and it has become hard to find a good news story on a major news broadcasting network. Terrorism has all these elements and therefore draws an extremely large crowd to watch the events.

The media will cover terrorism because that is their job but the main problem lies in how they cover it. The media covers these stories by showing photos after photos, trying to find someone to blame and exaggerating the threats that could be to come. (Terror Post 9/11 and the media, 2009) states “news reporting about terrorism is linked with “victimization” narratives that make crime, danger, and fear very relevant to everyday experiences”. This is once again exactly what the terrorist aim to achieve – creating fear in an everyday person, this is how terrorists survive. The media uses two medium to make certain issues more prominent than others. These mediums are called agenda setting and framing. Agenda setting is the theory that the more coverage a story is given by the media, the more important the public attributes to the issue. Framing is “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, casual interpretation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Terrorism and the Media, 2008). The media coverage of the 9/11 attack made very clear opinions through its lens and sent a clear message to its audience. The cause was the terrorists, the effect was the death of civilians and the solution was war against the perpetrators. The media sends a bias and often skewed message of events to the audience for the greatest effect.

The symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media seems unbreakable and extremely hard to underpin. There are however ways that the media-related effects of terrorism can be diminished that doesn’t directly aid the terrorist’s actions. Non-Bias Coverage. Terrorism forces the media onto one side of the story and they will then present the stories that the audience wants to hear. This creates fear and as stated above achieves the terrorist’s goals. The media needs to show both sides of the story accurately. If they can’t achieve this then they need to find another way to present events because otherwise it is unfair to the audience. The way that negative stories are presented compared to positive stories are another example of biased coverage. The negative stories always have large breaking news headlines and are dramatized incredibly. This compares to the rare good news story which might get 1% air time per episode and is often quite dull in its coverage. The balance between positive and negative news stories is imperative for the credibility of the media and this will allow for a non-biased coverage in all stories.

Another way to control the terrorists use of the media is through clear and accurate coverage. If the media doesn’t have all the information but still decides to report on a terrorist story with the rumours they have heard they give the terrorists the edge. The terrorists aim to misinform the public and create uncertainty. If the media coverage is factual then this means the terrorists can’t spread incorrect rumours and misinterpretations become non-existent. In news bulletin’s that focus on terrorism there is a clear atmosphere of restlessness and rush of the news report but this needs to be calmed down and presented so everyone can clearly understand what is going on. This however is often a second though in the mad rush for media outlets to be the first to break the story. Although this is true media outlets need to make sure that their story is clear and accurate because otherwise they are doing more harm than the extra few dollars they will make being the first on the scene.

Finally, another way to achieve this is through counter cyber-terrorism. The communication of terrorists and political groups have become almost entirely dependent on the internet. They use the internet to spread their message, recruit members and even gain financial support. The restriction of internet use for certain topics and sections is a key element in controlling cyber-terrorism. Laws can be passed at a state or national level to criminalise those who use the internet to provoke the public, recruit members and gain financial assistance. It will then also aid the services in identifying terrorists and warn them of potential circumstances.

Terrorism is a massive issue. There is no other way to put it. Innocent civilian’s lives are destroyed because of political groups trying to spread their ideology to the world. Terrorists attacks are aimed to create an atmosphere of fear and to spread messages to a wider audience. Terrorists therefore need the media to achieve this goal and with the media’s need for a greater audience a symbiotic relationship is formed. Although this symbiosis is stronger than ever and there is little individuals can do to influence the terrorist’s decisions there are measures that the media can take to starve the other side. If the media works on creating a non-biased and clear coverage while continuing to counter terrorist’s actions they can starve the terrorists source of publicity which they depend on. Terrorism would be nowhere near as effective if there was no media because that is the way that they are able to communicate freely to the world. Terrorists objectives are to create fear and uncertainty within the general public and without the media they would not be able to achieve this. The fight may seem out of our hands but if we can change how the media portrays situations and change our attitude towards terrorism we are one step closer to starving a minority with an incredible amount of power.

Simeon Levine



Baran, J. (2008). Terrorism and the Mass Media after Al Qaeda. Retrieved from University for Peace: http://www.review.upeace.org/index.cfm?opcion=0&ejemplar=7&entrada=63

Bourke, J. (2016). How the changing media is changing terrorism. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/25/how-changing-media-changing-terrorism

Laquer, W. (2002). A history of Terrorism. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick NJ.

Terror Post 9/11 and the media. (2009). In D. L. Altheide, Global Crisis and the Media. New York : Peter Lang.

Terrorism and the Media. (2008). In S. a. COT Institute for Safety, Transnational Terrorism, Security & the Rule of Law. The Hague : COT Institute for Safety, Security and Crisis Management.

Whitehead, J. W. (2013). Terrorism and the Media: A symbiotic relationship. Retrieved from The Rutherford Institute: https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/terrorism_and_the_media_a_symbiotic_relationship

Wiemann, G. (2014). New Terrorism and New Media. Retrieved from Wilson Center: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/new-terrorism-and-new-media

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