The terrorist attack in New York last week hit close to home. My 11-year-old grandson sometimes rides the bike I gave him on that very bike path. You can see why I became glued to the TV.
Following the initial wave of feeling — of relief upon hearing my grandson was safe, of anguish for the victims and their families — my binge on the TV coverage got me thinking. This is just what they want me to be doing: Dwelling on the damage a single terrorist can do — becoming terrorized. And TV is the perfect means to that end.
A little research showed that mine was hardly an original thought. In May 2016, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs published a paper by journalist Javier Delgado Rivera titled "The Symbiotic Relationship Between Western Media and Terrorism." Rivera writes, "Mass media and terrorism have become ever more intertwined in a mutually beneficial relationship often described as 'symbiotic.'" He then goes on to "(outline) the need for news organizations to balance the public's right to know against the ability of militants to exploit news coverage to promote their beliefs."
Here's the catch: Media outlets seize on "the confusion and consternation caused by terrorist attacks to produce the kind of dramatic news that draws the attention" of their audiences. For mainstream television broadcasters — ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and all the local affiliates — there's simply too much to gain in audience and advertising dollars from exploiting the natural affinity between terrorism and TV as a communications medium. TV can capture the blood and gore and mayhem better than print or audio can.
Again, these are not original insights. But the recent incident went so perfectly to script — not just the killings but the coverage of the killings and their aftermath — that it recalls what we've read before. Again from Rivera:
"Today the emergence of an array of new digital platforms has turned media competition into a fierce contest to capture people's shortening attention spans. This has led to hyper-sensationalization in the way terrorist activity is reported, a tendency perhaps most apparent in television, still the general public's main source of information. TV has always had a love affair with drama and violence. 'Being on television confers a kind of reality on people, much more so than being written about,' said the late Daniel Schorr, a three-time Emmy-winning journalist who covered world news for more than 60 years. Drama is at its peak of effect on TV."
Shana Gadarian, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, draws similar conclusions in a piece published two years earlier in The Washington Post. She writes:
"Terrorism is newsworthy because it is inherently dramatic and threatening. Media competition means that journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences."
Competing for Mindshare
Sensationalized coverage of terrorism is dangerous, not only because it gives the terrorist cause increased exposure, but also because it pulls the focus away from other issues. Michael Jetter, a professor and research fellow with the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany, described his findings on the issue in an article by Jamie Doward published in The Guardian in August 2015. Quoting Jetter, the piece concludes, "We may need to rethink the sensationalist coverage of terrorism and stop providing terrorists a free media platform." Jetter further notes that coverage "of other events that are causing more harm in the world should not be neglected at the expense of media marathons discussing the cruelties of terrorists."
While the eight deaths and numerous injuries last week were horrible in and of themselves, what of the 145 deaths every day due to opioid use in the United States — a less visual, and thus more difficult, issue to cover on TV? For that story, we must turn to the Oct. 30 issue of The New Yorker, where a little-known staff writer, Patrick Radden Keefe, presents a more than 10,000-word account in painstaking detail of how the Sackler family, widely honored and renowned for their philanthropy, are actually drug lords on the highest order. Keefe's long article makes abundantly clear that the Sacklers are singularly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths due to overdoses of OxyContin, the drug their privately held family company created, deceptively marketed as nonaddictive and sold for billions of taxpayer dollars. But who reads anything over 10,000 words?
Instead, the increasingly short attention spans of most viewers gravitate to scenes of bloodshed and carnage on television screens everywhere. If it bleeds, it leads. And the major media companies, as CBS head Leslie Moonves admitted, have cleaned up on the sheer theater of terrorism on some days, and on the Trump presidency on others.
As Rivera points out:
"The media business is primarily driven by ratings and advertisement revenue. (Of course, public news networks are less driven by the latter but are equally dependent on the former). The media's readiness to focus on terror-related developments will continue for as long as journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences."
Another story that, like the opioid epidemic, is ill-suited to dramatic televised coverage is the student debt crisis. As an excellent piece by Matt Taibbi in the current issue of Rolling Stone shows in gruesome detail, student debt is destroying millions of American lives, certainly far more than terrorism. Yet when you look at the public opinion polls — whether from CBS News/New York Times, ABC News/Washington Post or NBC/Wall Street Journal — terrorism/national security comes in second place as the most worrisome issue, just behind jobs and the economy.
'Lone Wolves' Find Their Audience
Among the most perceptive of the many essays my research led me to is Jason Burke's February 2016 article in The Guardian, "How the Changing Media is Changing Terrorism." Drawing on attacks such as the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Burke explains the origin of the "lone wolf" strategy (which my fellow Stratfor contributor Philip Bobbitt has criticized) and anticipates last week's attack in New York:
"When it came to attacking Western targets, ISIS and other groups encouraged individuals to act alone. This strategy, which some analysts called 'leaderless jihad,' was based partly on theories developed in the early 2000s by an independent militant strategist known as Abu Musab al-Suri. His adage was that extremist activists needed 'principles, not organisations' and should be empowered to act as individuals, guided by texts they could find online, without necessarily belonging to any one group.
"Suri set out his ideas on the new style of terrorist violence in an extremely long book entitled A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance that he posted online shortly after the London bombings of 2005. Since then, the 'lone wolves' associated with his teachings have become a reality."
Burke also establishes the link between the shift in terrorist strategy and the shift in media technology.
"The result is that, if terrorism is 'theatre,' as the scholar Brian Jenkins said in the 1970s, Islamic extremist violence now takes the form of a stream of unpredictable, inter-related pop-up events that attract fleeting attention, rather than a programme of large-scale, unique productions. Terrorist communication takes place through multiple channels, all working simultaneously. The organisation of plots is increasingly peer-to-peer, not centralised. Once again, the structure of the terrorist groups, increasingly diverse, fragmented and dynamic, mirrors the changing structure of the media whose attention they seek."
Leading to an Overwhelming Question
Two troubling conclusions follow from this technologically enabled shift from events such as 9/11 to the "pop-up" attacks Burke describes. First is the tempting idea that TV broadcasters should censor their coverage to prevent sensationalism. This is the conclusion Rivera reaches in his essay for the Carnegie Council:
"Global news organizations must strike a difficult balance. They must be able to perform their professional duty of informing the public while also making sure that terrorists do not benefit from their work. To do that, a degree of self-restraint and greater editorial discretion — a 'voluntary code of conduct' — would redress some of the flaws of the media's reaction to terrorism."
Because economic interests make that kind of self-restraint unlikely, some call for tighter regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. But down that road lie censorship and violations of the First Amendment right to free speech.
The second troubling conclusion to be drawn from this tangled web of terrorism, technology and new media is this: If more modest attacks by local assailants have indeed superseded the "massive single strike in the West," as Burke puts it, then what is the value of smashing the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East? If we have moved into a new phase of "leaderless jihad," what is the value of searching out and killing the group's leaders?