Would there be terrorism without the media?

The media and terror

Although in Great Britain, as in Germany, the greatest threat of terrorism comes from the right-wing extremist scene, in the public consciousness terrorism is mostly only associated with jihadism. The media, too, tend to use the term »terror« in connection with Islamist and migrant assassins, and when it comes to local right-wing extremist attackers, they often shy away from classifying them in this way.

This different use of the term "terrorism" is also due to the lack of a recognized definition. There is consensus that terrorism is a way of communicating political goals through violence and thereby urging others to act. Terrorism is thus a means of getting messages across. What role do newspapers and other media play in terrorists' communication strategy? A current research report by the security policy think tank based in London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) deals with this question.

"Would there be terrorism if the mass media didn't report it?" The report aims to answer that question, explained Elisabeth Pearson, lecturer at the Research Center for Cyber ​​Threats at the Welsh University of Swansea, at its presentation on March 4th in London.

The question arises again and again after terrorist attacks. After the last such event in Europe on November 2, 2020 in Vienna, in which an ISIS sympathizer killed four people, tens of thousands signed a petition to withdraw state press funding from the tabloid media. The newspapers "Krone" and "Austria" had previously put video material online for the attack. They were therefore accused of having made the assassin public.

The current study examines the extent to which the British press uses or counteracts terrorism. Study author Jessica White acknowledges that the population wants prompt and detailed reporting on terrorist attacks. After the attacks, the newspapers influenced public perception. This reporting has positive, but also unintended negative effects on society. White therefore suggests that newsrooms create codes of conduct on how terrorist attacks should be reported. The media should receive regular training on these and ethical issues in connection with reporting on terrorist attacks. Such proposals are not entirely new. For years, requests and ideas have been brought to the British government and discussed in the trade unions and other interest groups. They have already been implemented in quality media.

The RUSI study also recommends better communication between the police and editorial offices in order to better understand each other's situation. The way journalists deal with the perpetrators of politically or religiously motivated acts of violence is excluded. The report is silent about how information and statements from those responsible for terrorism should be dealt with.

In any case, classic media have lost importance for terrorists in the age of social media in view of their own channels. For example, the Telegram messaging service is an important public relations tool for jihadist militias such as Daesh.

According to a survey by The Economist magazine, the threat of terrorism has decreased worldwide since 1992. In contrast, since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the USA, fear of such dangers has been growing steadily. The newsrooms of the media are not responsible for the terrorism, but they do influence who the public sees as a terrorist and how strongly the threat is perceived.

In the past twelve months, the British secret service allegedly prevented three terrorist attacks on the territory of the United Kingdom. As the Guardian writes, it is said to have been two jihadist and one right-wing extremist attack plan. The number of arrests in connection with terrorism fell from 282 in the previous year to 185 and was thus about as low as it was last in 2011. On the other hand, the number of right-wing extremist criminals convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act has increased. The 42 right-wing extremists convicted in 2020 set a new record.

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