Media Terrorism?

by Berry Friesen (December 2, 2015)

Think about the media coverage of the recent attacks in Paris.  The perpetrators used violence to make people in the West fear for our safety.  Did the media coverage keep the fear effect to a minimum?  Or unnecessarily amplify that effect?

Writing at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Adam H. Johnson helps us understand how violence “works” in today’s world.

“Terrorism—to the extent the term is useful—is a fundamentally postmodern crime. It requires two parties for it to be effective: the violent actor and the media. As I’ve mentioned here at FAIR before, blowing up a market 1,000 years ago, for example, before mass communication, would have been entirely pointless. To properly terrorize a population, the population must be aware of the threat, and to be aware of the threat relatively quickly, mass communication is required for economy of scale to be achieved.”

In a world filled with communication devices, the media cannot entirely avoid adding to the fear effect.  Johnson agrees that the media must report events of terrorism, but he insists it must stop using methods that sensationalize the events, prolong the coverage, or intensify the emotional impact with frightening images that accompany those events. And it should never report general threats of terrorism to come, which he calls “propaganda.”

Many have noted the expertise of Daesh’s communications, screen-ready for use by Western news outlets.   Johnson says:

“If the media really wanted to prevent the dissemination of ISIS propaganda, they could stop disseminating ISIS propaganda. It’s really that simple. Report the substance—‘James Foley Has Died,’ ‘ISIS Releases Another Propaganda Magazine’—but avoid the smutty details, the empty threats and, above all, the titillating visuals.”

But the mainstream media doesn't stop.  When we recall how it has performed over the past eighteen months since Daesh burst on the scene with its capture of leading Iraqi cities, smutty details, empty threats and titillating visuals have led the way.

How should we respond?

First, avoid the mainstream media.  It is enhancing the power of terrorism.  So shut it off.

Second, ask ourselves why it persists in practices that aid and abet terrorism. Certainly, a fearful public boosts ratings and profitability (not unlike an approaching hurricane keeps us all glued to our screens). But a fearful public also ensures support for growing military budgets and interventionist foreign policies, while distracting us from growing economic inequality and the failure of democratic processes.

This explains why the political elite are not talking about how the media are enhancing terrorism’s power.  Accomplishing their agenda has come to depend on us being afraid.

Third (and more difficult), foster the skepticism and resilience that resist the fear factor. Skepticism is difficult because it calls into doubt the truthfulness and intentions of respected people and institutions.  Resilience is difficult because the triggers of fear are beyond our rational control; emotion can easily overwhelm our best intentions.

This is where community is essential; resilience cannot be achieved in isolation.  So if you don’t have a community of support, find one.  And if you have one, make sure it is talking about the way the empire is using fear to further its agenda of domination and control.