Since we started publishing the Reader's Corner page weekly in Daily Sabah, the most frequent subject of our articles has been the subject of terrorism and how to deal with it in the media. The articles ranged from reactionary ones that dealt with common mistakes in the coverage of recent attacks to general guidelines and principles when covering terrorism without serving the terrorists' agenda of spreading fear and making an impact in our daily lives.
We are not alone in this regard either. With the increased terror attacks of the last decade, the media has scrambled to find a method to stop confusing, disoriented reporting that only served to exacerbate the effects of terrorism on the public. Some decided to use sensationalist language to draw attention to the outrage, while others preferred to downplay the incident and take a more clinical approach to prevent the spread of terror.
However, in the end, prevalent thinking took shape with similar principles being suggested by media organizations around the world. Some even implemented them -- at least in theory. Practice, however, tells an entirely different story. While the principles stay the same, their applications varied especially when the places that were targeted were outside of the media organization's country. Even in cases where a media organization covered an attack in their hometown, the lack of cohesion and haphazard adherence to the guidelines always remained the same.
The reason we cover the same problem isn't because of a terror attack or the mistakes of the media that came along. Rather, the reason is that a new study was done on the copycat effect of media coverage of terrorism.
The study, "The effects of media attention on terrorism," was conducted by Michael Jetter, a specialist in economics at the University of Western Australia in Perth. In his study, Jetter researched the correlation between terror attacks and the attention placed on these attacks by the media. For this task, he looked at 61,132 terror attacks that took place in 201 countries from 1992 to 2002. Analyzing the said attacks, the study also analyzed the scope of their coverage in key outlets such as the New York Times.
Even discounting the last couple of years' increased terrorism activity, 43 years of data to draw upon is a strong basis for drawing conclusions. The study does just that to learn more about the relationship between media coverage and terror attacks themselves, raising the question of whether increased coverage has an effect on increased terrorist attacks.
Ultimately, the study suggests that there is indeed a correlation between media coverage and terrorist attacks, as the two have a relationship in which the former feeds the latter. According to the study, an additional New York Times article on a terrorist attack translates to 1.4 attacks in the following week with about three casualties. This is a staggering theory that is presented in simple mathematics.
Seeing the effect in the raw and pointing to these numbers helps put things into perspective. While obtaining those numbers, Jetter used natural disasters in the U.S. as an exogenous variation. When a natural disaster such as a hurricane occurs, coverage shifts in a considerable way, resulting in a fewer number of articles being produced on terrorism. With this instrumental variable at hand, the study reached the said number, suggesting that when a terrorist group or attack receives diminished coverage in the media, the number of attacks also decreases.
The study supports what we've been saying all along. And, it is not the only one, as our previous articles cited numerous research, theories and statistics that say increased attention on terrorism in the media only worsens the situation. Coupled with a faulty approach devoid of proper universal guidelines, we have arrived in an era in which terrorists use the media as a valuable, effective tool for manipulation.
The fact of the matter is that terrorism is not alone in this regard either. There are numerous sensitive topics that can be exacerbated through faulty coverage. Suicide reports are one such example, another topic we have discussed numerous times. The media has guidelines in place when it comes to coverage of suicide bombings, including details such as location, method and reason.
However, not covering terrorism is not a valid option, either. When an attack occurs, it is news and very important news, at that. Therefore, it is not feasible or even ethical to implement a total blackout that hides the fact that an attack has taken place. That leaves us with limited options. We have to shape the coverage in a way that robs terrorists of their goal.
Here is where guidelines come into play. Some of these are quite simple, yet have still failed to be implemented by large parts of media organizations. For example, it should be obvious that printing large pictures of the bloody aftermath of an attack does not serve anyone's interests and only serves the terrorists. Still, we see those visuals on the front pages of newspapers and on media websites. Adopting the rhetoric of the terrorist organization is another blatant mistake that some make, but we still observe that their propaganda finds its way to the pages of newspapers.
In the end, we must take definitive steps to ensure that the media doesn't increase the likelihood of another terrorist attack. We must write effective guidelines with cooperation from all media companies. We must implement them instead of paying lip service. We must train and employ expert journalists prepared to cover terrorism while denying them their goal as much as possible. Otherwise we will live in the horrible reality that every article we write on terrorism may very well provide a stepping-stone for the next attack.