The Boom in Unethical Coverage of Terrorism in Media and the Negative Image it Has Created
by aurea.mediocritas on April 22, 2017 - 11:25pm
The Washington Post reports that on March 12th 2017, a convenience store owned by Indian brothers was set on fire in what the County Sheriff’s office has declared a hate crime. The perpetrator, a man from Florida assumed the owners were Muslim and wanted to “run the Arabs out of [the] country” due to his presumption that they had affiliations with ISIS (Doward, 2015). A study published by the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) states that between December 2015 and November 2016, 95% of the 207 documented “incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities” were due to the anti-Muslim attitude that has manifested following the exorbitant amount of terrorist attacks by extremist groups claiming to act in the name of Islam (Sridaran, 2017). While the act of terrorism is undeniably wrong, it is of utmost importance to analyze the role that the media plays in fostering such sentiment within a society. Through the lens of teleology, media coverage on acts of terrorism is unethical due to the impact it has on the victims of the attacks and the role it plays in advancing terrorists’ agenda.
Teleological ethics is driven by the idea that morality is dependent on the outcome associated to the action. Often times, the reason for publishing content is reduced to the news industry being for-profit and thus publishing what is more likely to sell. Given that profit is never a legitimate summum bonum, or end goal, journalist’s desire to report on terrorist attacks must be analyzed from an alternative perspective, one where the impact on individuals themselves is taken into account.
On the one hand, it is necessary for news media to report on such acts since, in order to fight the evil in a society, it is important to know that it exists and the different ways in which it manifests itself (Rudoy, 2016). To place limitations on reporting filters how much people know and it also acts as censorship. Given that free speech is a foundation of modern democracy, censoring the media will result in liberal nations to join the ranks of countries such as China and Russia who regulate media output. Furthermore, knowledge of this will decrease the perceived integrity of the news source and result in an increase in attack brutality from the terrorist groups to ensure that they cannot be ignored (Rivera, 2016). While the aforementioned all suggest that limiting the media from reporting to its fullest extent has an overall negative outcome, allowing the media to continue as is has greater consequences.
Similar to propaganda, terrorism is a form of persuasive communication; it aims to exacerbate social and political conflicts in societies, and to polarize citizens by pitting one group of individuals against another (Martin, 2008). As stated by Brian Jenkins, "terrorist attacks are often carefully choreographed to attract the attention of the electronic media and the international press. Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims" (Marthoz, 2017). This demonstrates the need for a medium through which the intended message is dissipated, ideally one which reaches a significant portion of the global population. They depend on this publicity to spread their message, to create a following, to recruit like-minded individuals, and to create fear; thus media coverage is critical to their success as an organization.
In recent history, various extremist groups have succeeded in achieving the aforementioned goals: the panic created by the media has allowed fear to manifest itself in such a manner that certain individuals have been marginalized due to their race or religious beliefs, if not both (Hoti, 2015). A perfect example of this is amount of Islamophobic rhetoric present during the 2016 American presidential election. A significant amount of dialogue was dedicated to the idea of Muslims being a threat to the societies in which they inhabit and the need for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States (Johnson, 2015). Due to the acts of a handful of extremists claiming to identify with a certain group and sensationalized reporting by the press, there is now a clear polarization within the American population and a newfound sense of us vs. them. In a time where the world is this interdependent and globally connected, demonizing an entire group of individuals has only negative consequences (Hoti, 2015). Since the news often includes generalizations, the outcome is one where more individuals are victimized as a result of reporting following acts of terror, than from the acts themselves. This unfavorable result is what makes modern media coverage of terrorism unethical.
Furthermore, the outcome of reporting on terrorism links to the symbiotic, or mutually-beneficial, relationship between terrorist groups and the media (Bilgen, 2012). Given the nature of modern mass media, outlets and journalists alike are constantly on the hunt for the next big story, playing right into the terrorists’ plan. In their quest for attention-grabbing headlines and rapid-fire reporting, outlets can often be seen going head to head for information and over-reporting on a given incident. To demonstrate this, one can compare coverage of an act of terrorism, such as the March 22nd Westminster attack, with an equally devastating occurrence such as Hurricane Matthew, which made its way to southeastern US in October 2016. Though Hurricane Matthew had a greater number of casualties (an estimated six-hundred to four from March), there was minimal coverage beyond the initial reporting. The Westminster attack, however, was in the international press for weeks. From the initial reporting, to follow-ups with government officials, and finally broadcasting victim interviews, the terrorist’s reach was amplified due to the number of articles devoted to the attack and thus their message travelled a greater distance (Rivera, 2016). Furthermore, studies show that since suicide missions receive more media coverage as compared to other attacks due to the human sacrifice aspect, they are becoming increasingly popular amongst terrorist groups (Doward, 2015). This demonstrates the influence reporting has on terrorism. Finally, since western media is more developed and has a greater global presence, attacks in the western hemisphere are more prominent and more likely to occur (Daly, 2013). This is not to say that other parts of the world do not fall victim to terrorism; it simply places a target on high-profile cities such as Orlando, Paris, Istanbul and Moscow since a greater potential for outrage presents a greater opportunity to have a lasting impact on the society (Marthoz, 2017).
Ultimately, the outcome of reporting on acts of terror is an increase in the presence of terrorism in our societies as it allows the message of these radical groups to manifest itself into the media we consume daily. Whether intentional on the part of reports, or not, terrorists benefit from continuous news coverage. In July 1985, Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister at the time, stated “we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend” (Thatcher, 1985). This statement remains valid today and the reality is that reporters engage in unethical behavior while covering terrorist attacks. There is a greater negative outcome on this style of reporting than there is a positive one.
It is critical that media professionals do their job of informing the public of current events in a manner that does not benefit terrorists and does not dissipate their message. Primarily, since citizens first receive information through the press, it is crucial that they continue to present information in a quick and efficient manner while ensuring that they are clear, critical and factually accurate. This requires minimizing the amount of content aimed at prompting an emotional response and maximizing scholarly review (Hoti, 2015). Secondly, careful selection of vocabulary and limiting the use of generalization may allow for more ethically-sound reporting. For instance, journalists may follow the example of President Obama who has refused to use the words “radical Islamic terrorists” together in order to reinforce the idea that the “United States is not at war with the religion of Islam” but rather the individuals who have radicalized it (Hartman, 2016). Thirdly, it is crucial that reporting be limited to providing citizens with the information they need to be aware of the global situation, rather than dragging out reporting for as long as possible and adding opinion. This will limit coverage granted to terrorists while ensuring that individuals are presented with the facts needed to be informed and aware citizens. Finally, unity should be considered a moral imperative in journalism such that no individuals or groups are polarized. When nations are presented in a negative or damaging light due to reporting on terrorism, journalists should seek to restore equilibrium to ensure that a greater group does not become victim to the attack. This is crucial in ensuring that reporting on terrorism is ethical through the guidelines of frameworks such as teleology. It is also of utmost importance in ensuring global peace and the ability to live cohesively. It is through such reporting that the acts of violence listed in the SAALT report can become a part of history, and the hate crimes committed by the likes of the Florida man are no longer a part of our reality.
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Title explained: Boom was purposely used in an ironic manner and not intended to offend. Negative image relates to the graphic associated to the article, a picture taken after the Westminister attack of March 22nd.