If it is claimed that the world has become a safer place after the killing of a terrorist leader, there is a fundamental contradiction in understanding the issue of terrorism. Terrorism differs from other crimes due to the element of politics involved in it. Thousands of terrorists could be killed on the battle field, but how do we kill the political ideology being followed by innumerable non-combatants or silent comrades who could potentially fill the gap? The media plays a key role in this ideological battle by creating a platform for engagement, discourse and deliberations. But has the media itself identified its role in this ideological battle – that is mainly to defuse the tension and conflicts? Has it identified the root causes why the youth take up arms, and struggle against existing systems? In a nutshell, does it play its due role as the Fourth Estate in democracies?
Keywords: Terrorism, Democracy, Media and Conflict, Capacity, Understanding
Democracy is impossible without a free press (Baker, 1998) but protracted conflicts around the world have challenged the various components of democracy, and its traditions and institutions, to a large extent – the media is not spared.
Media activists usually blame successive regimes for curtailing press freedom, but it is pertinent to shed light on the media itself, to ascertain whether it has performed its due role in such democracies which have been threatened and challenged by politically driven, ethnically or religiously designed and militarily ruthless conflicts. Many believe the, media should bear a considerable share of the responsibility for these conflicts that have ravaged the world for over decades.
It is an undeniable fact that the media plays an extremely vital role in defusing tension, managing conflicts and establishing democracy. As Kurspahic (2003) argues, the independence of the media is an important part of future peace agreements and one of the crucial requirements for international acceptance of states in transition. But the real challenge is in convincing the media to adopt this independence the commercial side of which is necessarily a blending of two separate disciplines: business and journalism (Herrick, 2003). Apart from the commercial side, there is of course a strong political agenda as well.
The media is often accused of being biased or polarised. The perceived root causes for this phenomenon range from aspects such as market forces, the political alignment of the ownership, readership influence, and lack of professional standards among journalists and editors.
Terrorism is largely defined as ‘politically motivated violence against civilian targets.’ Thus, there is a clearly demarcated political element within the term of ‘terrorism.’ The political element could be derived from religious, ethnic or other forms of ideology – in other words, different ideologies such as religious, ethnic or commercial at converging into one specific element – politics.
The media plays a key role in democracies, that is, in bringing together different schools of thought and being the voice for the voiceless. But the question remains whether the media is playing this role or whether it has even understood its responsibilities. Does the media provide the required platform for the deprived youth who agitate to highlight their grievances? If not what are the reasons behind this failure?
Media and Conflict of Interests
Information, education and entertainment are the cardinal aspects of the media of which information, as in the formation of ‘news,’ reaches the public. Some would argue that news and information are two different components of the media – based on the public response, but there exists a thin margin demarcating the two.
An independent media is the pillar of true democracy; no other institution does what journalism does, namely “inform, monitor, and critique” public affairs (Stepp, 1996). To the extent that papers and stations try to “fix government through journalism” or “substitute journalism for government” they depart from their unique duties to provide checks on governments that are critically important to democracy, argues Stepp.Though he, in his academic commentary, does not deeply engage with the concept of news in the field of media, many scholars have argued that the impact of news is the cardinal element in shaping public opinion at large.
News, one of the most important forms of information imparted by the mass media (Roy, 2005), is considered one of the most important components that shapes public opinion (Shrivastava, 2003). It also makes people feel they are part of a bigger network of people or a larger community, which could be derived through a formula where people and their actions are conjoined with the reader’s interest that generate news (Roy, 2005).
However, according to Dzur (2002), news is more than the information that the public wants. According to him, the mandate of news goes beyond mere reporting to generating public discourse. More controversial than the re-conceptualisation of what is newsworthy, so that it includes non-elite stories and purposeful news, is the belief that to promote public deliberation, journalists must do more than report the news, and should broaden their role to include helping the public convene and deliberate about public affairs, Dzur says. He added that news journalists should play the role of the neutral referee in such public deliberations derived from the news they have relayed to the public. Of course, the metaphor is not entirely apt, since referees do not influence the rules of the game and seldom urge the players onto the field. Like referees, though, journalists would immediately lose their particular role-based authority if they were to actively root for one side, Dzur argues.
But it is seldom that the journalist himself or herself takes the decision to be one-sided. In the corporate business of the news media, and also in the Asian context where the media is a value-added commodity in gaining political power, the concept of objective news reporting has different variations and interpretations. In this context, several writers argue about different agendas in news reporting, especially market interest, business models, corporate influence and political agendas.
Do Journalists Understand the Conflicts?
Beyond these above mentioned issues, the most salient point is the capacity of the journalist to understand the conflicts. Many media critiques and media development experts believe journalists – whether local or international – have little understanding of the conflicts which they report on.
If the journalist has no proper understanding of the conflict, he or she could hardly be expected to explain all aspects of the conflict to the audience. Thus, reporting on the conflicts is limited to mere documenting of events or day-to-day incidents without proper analysis or a historical background.
This phenomenon limits the level of engagement of the public, including the deprived segments of society, in the media platform. Due to vested interests and unprofessional conduct, the media has largely abandoned its role of giving a voice to the voiceless, and that of creating a common platform for open deliberations on issues of public interest.
It is possible for the media to play a decisive role in defusing tension and educating the masses despite the influence of vested interests, but modern media corporations seem far more interested in profits than they are in news dissemination (Herrick, 2003). Journalism today could be categorised as ‘market-driven journalism’ which is driven in turn by geographic cluster ownership with coordination of news and advertising staffs on marketing.
Media owners are not the only stake holders that attempt to influence the media, in particular news journalism. Politicians, statesmen, business people (advertisers), and wealthy and influential people throughout the world try to change the face of journalism and what it publishes.
However, amidst all these developments, news still gets twisted, slanted and spun due to many factors – mainly political or economic circumstances or both. Bennett (1988) explains four characteristics of biased news reporting as follows:
- Personalising news into human interest accounts, limiting the public’s ability to see the ‘big picture’, and causing a focus on the trivial aspects of important news events, like personality flaws and behavioral gaffes;
- Dramatising news to present stories that stem from events, leaving no professional convention for addressing many of the more serious problems confronting contemporary societies, like hunger, racism, resource waste and depletion;
- Information fragmentation, making it difficult to see the larger picture;
- A source bias, where news media seeks out authoritative voices of officials who offer views that “normalise” the news for average members of the public.
Media and Terrorism
The contemporary form of terrorism is highly media-savvy and mostly media-focused. In fact one could easily argue that the main focus of any terrorist attack is to seek maximum publicity through maximum damage. Newsrooms will provide prominence to the news of a bomb explosion if the death toll and the damages are high. If not the story will end up in the obituary pages or does not get published at all. In Pakistan some argue that most the recent Taliban attacks were timed specifically to coincide with prime time news bulletins, thus receiving maximum media mileage.
Propaganda is the most important tool in any battle. Not only terrorists, but State actors too are looking forward to reaping maximum benefits through media outreach. As far as propaganda is concerned, there is no major difference between state and non-state actors, but terrorists need the media to publicise their goals and ideologies.
Almost all the leading terrorist groups handle the media in a professional manner. They have dedicated media units, spokespersons, and websites that frequently update and feed the news desks with statements and media releases – far ahead of any governmental structure in most cases. During the peak of the Northern Ireland conflict, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) appointed Pat Rice who was capable of speaking 16 languages fluently as its international spokesman. Though Al-Qaeda took some time to understand the importance of the media, it started media propaganda by dropping videotaped statements at the doorsteps of major media stations. Now it has a fully fledged propaganda operation which attracts all major media stations.
On the other hand the media struggles to fill their news pages and bulletins with news that matter to the day-to-day life of the audience. Terrorist attacks provide the media with good, marketable material, complete with fantastic visuals and images. After a major terrorist attack, newspaper circulation increases and viewership ratings go up. News pages and bulletins get easily filled up.
There are ten elements that determine the newsworthiness of a story to journalists and news editors:
- Immediacy and event-orientation;
- Drama and conflict;
- Negativity (bad news is always good news);
- Human interest;
- Photographability / Good visuals;
- Simple story lines;
- Topicality (current news frames);
- Status of information source; and
- Local interest.
News that derive from terrorist activities fit well into these ten elements. Thus, there exists a vicious cycle between terrorism and the media in providing and manufacturing news, and a strong co-existence between media and terrorism that serves each others’ objectives –political and commercial goals.
The Vicious Cycle
In that context, one can blame the media for providing the terrorists a platform by reporting on terrorism related incidents, because as argued above, publicity and propaganda are exactly what terrorists are looking for in media coverage of its events – whether its terrorist attacks or their media releases.
On the other hand, from the media’s point of view there are two reasons for reporting terrorist related events. One is keeping the public informed on developments, and the other is defending basic democratic norms by providing a voice for groups whose grievances should be heard by the authorities.
The absence of a globally accepted definition for terrorism is a major obstacle in this regard. The media generally feels that the term “terrorist” is largely driven by political interests and in-house policies within media houses have various different approaches in dealing with the term. Most stylebooks of media houses do not use the word terrorist, but would rather stick to terms such as militants, combatants, guerillas, etc. This situation leads to confrontations between state actors and the media.
But the media would argue that while reporting on terrorism-related incidents or carrying terrorist organisations’ statements may be deemed an anti-social practice, in doing so the media is practicing its due role in a vibrant democracy.
Youth and Media vs Terrorism
It is commonly believed that the youth today are the most vulnerable sector of society and are susceptible to radicalisation. Politically, economically or socially deprived youth can easily be exploited by interested parties. Terrorists are not born but produced or derived by society itself. Due to the co-relationship between terrorism and politics, the media has a greater role in a pluralistic, societal democracy to bring socio-political grievances to the larger platform of discourse. Hence, the media’s shoulders a mammoth social responsibility in educating the masses on social vulnerabilities and also bringing various interested and deprived groups onto a common platform for wider social deliberation. Youth should be included a considerable portion of these deliberations which will ultimately defuse their internal tensions and frustrations.
Historically, world-wide it has been seen youth would resort to violence if their voices are not heard or they are not provided with due space to air their grievances. Therefore, the media could be better tools as well as a platform in the de-radicalisation of youth. This is a paramount component of long term counter-terrorism strategies.
But the current argument is whether the media is practicing its due role. A basic study of the percentage of allocation in media space for youth issues and their voices would answer this pertinent question. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that it is the same old names that dominate the larger media landscape particularly local media.
The terrorist is a political animal who uses violence as a tool to achieve his goals. The best way to silence a terrorist is by changing his perceptions and ideologies through wider engagement on different levels, rather than killing him. This argument does not seek to undermine the role of the military in counter-terrorism activities. The media has a greater role to play in strengthening democracy by providing a platform for wider discourse to help ease the tension among different stake-holders and ultimately silence the guns and bombs.
The media is not playing this role in many democracies in creating this platform for social discourse but rather merely carries out ad-hoc reporting of incidents. Vested commercial or political interests and influences, competition, a lack of understanding of situations and journalists of poor calibre are among the various reasons for this situation. While it is acknowledged that the media is a commercial entity that seeks to make profits by selling news and various other products it has nevertheless a social responsibility; this social responsibility has become a topic for a greater debate.
Also there exists between terrorism and the media a vicious cycle and co-relationship in producing and selling news. Breaking or removing this cycle is a myth rather than a reality. The best solution to this is to make a clear distinction between news reporting and opinion discourse.
Providing the necessary space for the youth in this media platform is paramount in preventing them from taking up arms against established systems. Grievances of the deprived youth should be brought to the platform of political discourse, not to the terrorist battle ground.