To what extent is the media's reporting on terrorism factual, and should images, videos or even information about attacks or radicalised individuals be banned from being broadcast? Do the media benefit terrorist organisations?
Terrorism today has acquired a particularly prominent role in both national and international politics, in addition to its continuous presence in the media, especially when it comes to attacks against civilians. The population, victim of a state of terror, demands rapid information that resolves their concerns about the surrounding danger, leading the media to fall into information that is not entirely correct or that leads to mere speculation and, therefore, to false news.
Dealing with a subject as sensitive as terrorism requires journalists who are experts on the subject, getting to the heart of the matter, making good value judgements, avoiding sensationalism and proselytising. Leaving investigative exercises to the Security Forces and Corps, and focusing merely on providing the information in their hands once its veracity has been checked. It is difficult not to take a position in the face of such violent acts, but as impartiality is one of the pillars of journalism, this possible position should not be evident when writing about the facts. A certain degree of rejection of terrorism is understandable, without falling into morbidity.
As the French lawyer Antoine Garapon states, the mass media are immersed in a great dilemma: while, on the one hand, by informing, they become involuntary messengers of the message of terrorism and its executors, on the other, self-censorship could be considered as a possible link with these organisations or political interests, that is, they would generate suspicion and accusations, in addition to losing legitimacy.
Bearing these facts in mind, it is worth questioning whether the media relevance given to terrorism is disproportionate, on the basis that the media should be faithful to reality, not seeking morbidity or sensationalism in their news, respecting the true values of journalism.1
Covering terrorism is a real challenge for the media. They must report in real time and update quickly without falling into false accusations or bias. These mistakes are devastating to stigmatised communities, opening the debate on whether authorities should withhold information from the media, whether the media "spectacle" and "tornado" following an attack should be suppressed in favour of suppressing such misconduct.
Terrorist attacks serve as a pretext for bringing to light social prejudices of a political, social, economic or any other nature, running the risk of generalisations, condemning entire communities.
The informative function is distorted by the force of morbidity, the glorification of hatred (in this case towards terrorist groups) or even political overtones. This unleashes a widespread reaction of alarm, whether due to the spectacular nature of the events, the media's spectacularity or a purely political paradigm, exaggerating reality in order to trigger a demand for order and social normalisation on the part of the population.2
It has been proven that thanks to the media and its publicity for the violent acts of these radical groups, individuals all over the world have been inspired to commit their own acts. Moreover, it provides a means for the expansion of their demands, entering fully and irrevocably into the public domain. In other words, the key focuses on "the greater the violence, the greater the media impact, and therefore the greater the social repercussion", thus fulfilling the terrorist aim.3
It is worth mentioning the false information distributed by the mass media, which is more sensationalist than informative, and is considered truthful due to the reputation of the source without being questioned or refuted by the viewer. In this respect, the internet has the peculiarity that social networks such as Twitter or Facebook control the content that is published, censoring and eliminating all content that is offensive, false or incites apology (as in the case of the magazine Dabiq or Jihadology).4
Despite the dramatic nature of any attack on Western soil, the reality is different. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, carried out by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), since 2000 these attacks in the West have only accounted for 2.6% of the total, with a total of 3,659 fatalities, compared to those in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Moreover, contrary to our thoughts, jihadist terrorism is not the biggest actor, with 80% of the victims deriving from violent actions carried out by actors related to extreme right-wing organisations, nationalists, anti-government sentiments and other forms of supremacy.
According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, most deaths in the West from terrorist attacks account for no more than 0.5% of the total. The year 2014 was consolidated as the year with the highest number of attacks and deaths, coinciding with the establishment of the self-styled Islamic State, with more than 32,000 deaths (doubling the previous year's figures), with Iraq with 9,929 deaths, Afghanistan with 9,233 and Nigeria with 9,213.
However, despite these figures, jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, Daesh and Al-Qaeda see the West as the most effective way to implement and propagate their ideology through terror.5
In 2015, the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris killed 12 people. In order to report on the events, hours after the attack, RTVE (chosen as an example), wrote in more than one page the facts in detail, opening the news by quoting François Hollande: "Terrorist attack of exceptional barbarity".
It goes on to define the events as a "massacre" and attaches an image showing one of the individuals, Kalashnikov in hand, shooting down a defenceless person on the ground with his arms raised, with the caption: "Let's avenge the prophet". The first few lines alone reveal several lapses: drama and exaggeration, morbidity and the relevance of the jihadist slant, exposing the Muslim community.
The news continues with a second section called "Criminals on the run", a title that after a first reading incites panic, followed by: "It has been a slaughter". This section closes with a video recorded from an adjoining flat in which the shots can be heard and the individuals can be seen. This is followed by two more sections with additional information.6
By way of comparison, a news item written by the newspaper EL MUNDO on one of the attacks that occurred in Nigeria in 2019: "At least 65 dead in a Boko Haram attack on a funeral procession in Nigeria". The news starts with the following sentence "At least 65 people were killed", in this case "died" is used instead of "killed" in the previous news item: "killed". The facts are described in a six-line paragraph.7
We can observe the relevance given to an attack in which 12 people die as opposed to one in which more than 65 are killed, showing the geographical influence of each country and victim society, with the magnitude of the events not being as relevant as the origin of the victims themselves.
It can be said, however, that the most appropriate news item is the one about the attack in Nigeria, avoiding sensationalism, drama and, above all, the spread of fear.
Amanda Pérez, criminologist and international terrorism analyst. SEC2CRIME
- Alsina, M. R. (1989). Medios de comunicación y terrorismo: apuntes para un debate. Anàlisi: Quaderns de comunicació i cultura(12), 101-110.
- Penal Code. (n.d.). Código Penal. Spain: Anaya.
- Institute for economics & peace. (n.d.). Global terrorism index 2015: MEASURING AND UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF TERRORISM. p. 111.
- Losada, C. (n.d.). Terrorism and the media (I). The oxygen of publicity. The liberal enlightenment(33).
- Maiduguri. (28 July 2019). At least 65 killed in Boko Haram attack on funeral procession in Nigeria. EL PAIS.
- Marín, J. L. (18 November 2015). who does terrorism hit? CTXT beta.
- Marthoz, J.-P. (2017). Terrorism and the Media: a handbook for journalists (Mirta Lourenço ed.). Paris, France: UNESCO.
- Ramirez, C. (January 2019). Symbiosis between the media and terrorism. Tel Aviv University, 5.
- Reina, J. M. (March 18, 2019). Jihadist terrorism and its treatment in the media. Retrieved from Crimipedia: http://crimina.es/crimipedia/topics/terrorismo-yihadista-tratamiento-los-medios-comunicacion/
- RTVE.es . (15 January 2015). Attack on 'Charlie Hebdo' At least 12 shot dead in French magazine threatened for publishing cartoons of Mohammed. rtve.