One hashtag at a time, the so-called Islamic State uses social media as a very effective tool. Direct and open access to a large audience enables them to successfully attract foreign fighters and spread fear across the world. Unfortunately, Western mass media outlets end up amplifying the fear through their coverage of terrorism, which creates an inaccurate perception that terrorism presents an existential threat to Europe. In reality, perception of fear can be managed and mass media can play a role in minimizing the influence of terrorism.
In a war of principles, the media gives terrorism a very useful platform. Coverage of terrorist attacks in real time provides instantaneous publicity for terrorists and renders the threat more immediate for the general public. In other words, a video of the attack recorded by a passerby, shown on TV and shared on digital platforms, is more poignant than a black-and-white photo in a print newspaper. Furthermore, media outlets give a voice to terrorists by publishing messages and photos directly from terrorist organizations’ propaganda material.
Terrorists use this platform to instill fear in society, which can have direct economic costs. Efforts to assuage public fears can lead governments to prioritize security over economic growth and implement costly policies. For instance, increased border checks impede trade and free movement of people. More immediate effects can be felt in the tourism industry. In France, where tourism makes up 7 percent of gross domestic product, the series of terrorist attacks threatens to stall the recovery from recession. Unchecked public fears can also adversely influence policy.
While terrorism does not pose an existential threat to Europe, it does threaten European values of freedom and openness. The string of terrorist attacks has also raised debates about privacy issues, military deployments in Germany, and most importantly, refugee and migrant policies across the EU. It has strengthened nationalist political parties, increased anti-foreign sentiment, and undermined established political order. Within this framework, managing public perception of security is a critical step in denying terrorism its influence.
As such, how mass media covers terrorist attacks plays an important role in the fight against terrorism. Yet, a very thin line divides self-censorship and constructive editorial policy changes. Even if major media networks eschew broadcasting what they deem as senseless coverage of terrorist violence, material will still remain available on social media platforms. YouTube will still be there. Twitter will still be there. Generally speaking, the internet will still be there. Given this, Western media faces a challenge in reconciling informing the public with inadvertently publicizing terrorism.
Le Monde tackled the debate in a recently published editorial and announced that it would no longer publish pictures of terrorists. This builds on an existing policy to halt publishing photos taken from propaganda material released by terrorist organizations. Le Monde argues that the policy shift will avoid posthumous glorification of attackers. While unlikely to deter future attacks, the policy represents a move in the right direction.
Moving forward, the first step for media would be to refrain from speculation immediately following an attack, before authorities have had time to conduct a thorough investigation. In May, a German national carried out a knife attack near Munich, Germany. In July, a lone gunman claimed nine lives on the fifth anniversary of the attack by Norwegian Anders Breivik. In both cases, the police found no links to extremism. More recently, less than 24 hours after a knife attack in Australia claimed a victim, several media sources, including the Associated Press, ran a headline proclaiming how the assailant had shouted “Allahu akbar.” While the headline implied terrorism, yet again, the police found no such ties.
Western mass media should conduct a continuous evaluation of media coverage policies. The public now perceives any mass attack through the lens of terrorism, and terrorist organizations, including the so-called Islamic State, are quick to claim any mass attack as their own. Media should counter this with a measured and calculated approach. A concerted media effort could steer the dialogue away from fear, the most potent tool in the arsenal of terrorists.
More than an impartial observer, mass media plays an important role in public discourse. The choice of stories, how those stories are reported, and the details included or omitted, shape public perceptions and policy. Western mass media should use this platform to minimize the reach and influence of terrorism.