Time for media to starve terrorists of their oxygen of publicity

India and Pakistan at peace is not only possible, but inevitable and media must be the next stage in our collective evolution

Written by Ushy Mohan Das | Updated: January 6, 2016 12:39:27 pm
(Representative image/AP) Terrorism receives extensive media attention whether it is the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS or the Jaish-e Mohammad in Pathankot (Representative image/AP)

Shakespeare said it best in Macbeth: “That we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.”

The contemporary balance of power politics on the Indo-Pak borders, the escalating events, ripping the region apart; religious fundamentalism exploited as a weapon for supremacy; these dangerous currents have been a long time in the making, and they can have far-reaching and real consequences.

The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a view terrorists themselves would gladly accept. Terrorists believe they are legitimate combatants, fighting for what they believe in and using whatever means possible to attain their goals.

Terrorism is continually changing. While on the surface it remains “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear…” it is rapidly becoming the predominant strategic tool of our adversaries.

Countries with most attacks, 2014: Global Terrorism Database

Country # Attacks # Fatalities
Iraq 3925 13076
Pakistan 2146 2409
Afghanistan 1820 5411
Ukraine 889 1396
Somalia 862 1582
India 859 488
Yemen 760 1349
Libya 729 690
Nigeria 713 7774
Philippines 597 472

Terrorism receives extensive media attention whether it is the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIS or the Jaish-e Mohammad in Pathankot. We also are aware that terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear, induce panic, urgency and recruit followers.

Michael Jetter, a professor and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany observed that over the past 15 years “the world has experienced a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks”. The Global Terrorism Database listed 1,395 attacks in 1998, a figure that has steadily risen since then, reaching a record high of 8,441 in 2012.

Jetter pointed out that 42 people die everyday from terrorist attacks, compared with 7,123 children who die from hunger-related causes. Why neglect coverage of other events that are causing more harm in the world at the expense of media marathons and debates discussing the cruelties of terrorists?

I fully concur with him when he says, “we may need to rethink the sensationalist coverage of terrorism and stop providing terrorists a free media platform,”

The problem does not lie in why the media covers terrorism, but lies in how the media covers terrorism. It is by and large the case that the media covers terrorist acts by sensation-seeking debates, enlarging anecdotic stories, especially on who is to blame, repeating the same images and statements over and over again.

These attacks are designed to create an atmosphere of fear. In the same vein, terrorism can also refer to politically motivated deeds perpetrated by groups or individuals for the sake of communicating messages to a larger population. In any case, the terrorists’ need for media publicity and media’s need for a greater audience and results to form a deadly symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media.

This symbiosis is not inevitable, in a sense where the media can act in a more responsible, more conscious, and cooperative manner, by starving the terrorists of the oxygen of publicity on which they so depend.

This is how the media should evolve:

Objectivity: The media should have a conscious sense of its responsibilities to the public, as one of the goals of terrorists is to shake public confidence in their own security. Thus, objectivity and bipartisanship should be key when reporting an episode so that the viewers can make their own opinion of the incident independent of the media’s influence.

Clarity: One of the goals of terrorists is to misinform the public and exploit the uncertainty and fear that emerges afterwards. Media should provide the clearest, most factual, and most balanced information to the extent possible to prevent the misinterpretation of terrorism-related incidents.

Differentiation: Media should differentiate between terror, in order not to provoke and mobilize public against certain ethnic and/or religious minorities. It is vital not to cover news and stories in such a way to contribute to create an “us versus them” scenario. Such dichotomy can give way to social unrest in diverse societies that fail to integrate and trigger further attacks as the anger and hopelessness become pushing forces for potential recruiters, sympathisers, and even moderates to inflame.

TRP and Sensationalism: There is no doubt that terrorism must be reported. However, the way the events are framed and the extent to which it is covered is also important. Media must re-evaluate and change its rhetoric when covering terrorism-related news and stories. The incidents can be covered just as any other story in a more responsible and less “sensational” manner.

India and Pakistan at peace is not only possible, but inevitable and media must be the next stage in our collective evolution. Will we achieve peace after unimaginable horrors precipitated by our stubborn media clinging to old symbiotic patterns? Will we achieve it by choice?

Professor Dr Ushy Mohan Das is a doctor by profession and an academic by passion. An avid writer, a transformation coach and a crusader, she believes the common man must speak up for what is right.

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