In light of the event that occurred at Old Trafford at the weekend, I think it is safe to say that the Media, whether they intend it or not, contribute heavily to creating terrorism-related panic; now more so than ever.
Fear of extremist terrorist attacks is rife in 2016; post Paris and Brussels, the democratic values of the western world are under serious threat. Although the Media are clearly not advocates of terrorism, their live, around the clock coverage of these atrocities almost always benefit the perpetrators, assisting them in establishing a state of panic across the targeted nation; even across the globe.
Understandably, it is difficult for the media to determine what should and should not warrant coverage when it comes to terrorist attacks; Alan Protheroe, Chairman of the Association of British Editors, believes “part of the difficulty for the media is to determine when a terrorist stunt is just that, a stunt designed for the media.” (Schmid 1992, p 134-135)
Although not a stunt, the event that occurred at Old Trafford on Sunday is evidence of the Media imposing unnecessary fear upon the UK, with the suspect device found being from a mere training exercise that took place days before. The decision to evacuate the stadium was indeed imperative, however it brings to question how compulsory the subsequent coverage was; rolling news, distressed interviews, and constant video footage resulting in every person in the country being on the edge of their seat over the controlled explosion of a fake bomb.
I am not for one second undermining the spectacular efforts of the Manchester United staff, Police, and Bomb Disposal team, who made sure everyone was dispersed safely, I simply believe events such as these highlight the media’s ability to implement unwarranted panic and chaos over situations that are already under control.
Another way in which the media have assisted modern terrorist groups such as ISIS in generating panic is through inadvertently representing Muslims as the only terrorists that exist; the ones we should fear and prepare for attacks from.
Filmed terrorist training exercise at the Trafford centre last week featured a fake protagonist shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ upon detonating a fake bomb. Despite the Police Chief who organised the exercise since apologising, Freudian slips such as these reveal the naïve attitudes of significant public figures within the UK. If these are the attitudes embodied by people of importance, why would the views of the public be any different?
This depiction of all Muslims as terrorists is exactly what extremist organisations like ISIS want. ISIS claim responsibility for all big scale attacks, even when they may not have actually committed them, because they know that the media will use them as a scapegoat regardless. Once there is someone to blame, people have somewhere to direct their hate, and with ISIS being extremist Muslims, people in the western world begin to focus that vengeance upon Islam in its entirety; with some major politicians, notably Donald Trump, already campaigning to enforce sanctions on Muslims entering the US altogether.
This type of response ultimately plays into ISIS’ hands; if all Muslims are discriminated against due to the actions of a select few, they may feel they have no choice but to join the terrorist group in order to protest against the unfair treatment; ensuing the religious war ISIS so desperately crave.
Terrorist groups like ISIS further use the media to their advantage by conducting substantial attacks that are designed to attract media coverage; this is an idea acknowledged by Brian Jenkins (1975), who suggests that terrorism is a form of theatre: “terrorist attacks are often carefully designed to attract the attention of the electronic media and international press. Taking and holding hostages increases the drama; it is aimed at people watching, not at the actual victims.” (Weimann, 1987, p 22)
By obtaining this theatre-esque media coverage, terrorist groups are able to enter the ‘triangle of political communication’ (Nacos, 2002); coordinating live destructions of a nation’s public in order to send a message to its government. The 2015 Paris attacks were a prime example of this kind of media exploitation, with assailants targeting the Stade de France, where the French national team were playing in a live televised football match, and the Bataclan theatre, where 1,500 people were watching a live music performance.
As desirable as Margaret Thatcher’s proposal of ‘starving the terrorist of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend’ is, events such as those in Paris highlight the problems this approach could present; with completely censoring terrorist attacks from the media almost certainly resulting in more casualties, due to people being ill-informed and unprepared: “Do we wait for the second bomb, when the publicity of the first might have alerted people to be on the lookout?” (Protheroe, 1990)
I do, however, believe a new approach to reporting these atrocities needs to be established. Giving terrorists a voice does not mean their need for violence will decrease, it simply means they have been successful in manipulating the system; and will therefore follow the exact same guidelines the next time they want to make a political point.
Constant, major coverage of these attacks inevitably results in copycat terrorism, as the destructive sociological and psychological impact that these events have on the western world display its overall vulnerability, which supplies other extremists with the means and knowledge of how to emulate this sort of upheaval.
In order to reduce the terrorist’s voice, the media must figure out a way to firstly minimise panic, and at the same time issue warnings and safety guidelines for the public to follow. Reduction in live video footage would perhaps decrease the level of panic across the globe, refraining from showing distressing images until all facts are known, and issuing safety advice via online/television media instead.
This may be an unachievable goal with the information demand of the digital zeitgeist, however, the media must begin to find new ways to neglect the fear and chaos implemented by terrorist organisations in the 21st century, not amplify it.