A Grain Of Saul

A Grain Of Saul: The Glaring — And Fixable — Issue With The Media's Coverage Of Terror Attacks

We need to prevent terror attack contagion without compromising the quality of our coverage.

When my older brothers used to pick on me, my mom and dad always had the same advice: "Ignore them. The attention is what they want."

It was a tough thing to do at the time. How do you ignore a charlie horse or dead arm or someone insulting your 7th grade girlfriend to your face? When a bully is in front of you demanding your attention, typically you want to respond with hatred and strength and fight back.

But as I got older, I got better at incorporating my parents' advice. I noticed my brothers enjoyed punching me or making fun of me a lot less when they didn't get the reaction they wanted — me crying or complaining or fighting back. Without the drama, their motivation was suddenly neutered.

I don't mean to oversimplify the issue. But over time, I learned to change my responses to my bullies in ways that kept me safe and gave me the upper hand. I knew what they wanted. I denied them the satisfaction of getting it. The bullying subsided.

We also know what terrorists want. Terror. Fame. Glory. Martyrdom. We can deny them their satisfaction, too.

They want their divisive message of hatred to be spread as far and wide as possible, and they have learned that acts of violence are distressingly effective at getting the media's attention. 

Which is exactly why the media has an obligation to change how we are covering acts of terrorism both here and abroad. 

Right now, there is a good deal of evidence to prove that coverage of mass shootings inspires mass shootings. Arizona State University mathematics professor Sherry Towers has shown that coverage of mass shootings and school shootings can increase the incident rates of those events in surrounding communities. Similarly, several different researchers have found that terror attacks come in clusters of times and places, and that media coverage can be a tipping point for those who may be predisposed to violent behavior.


Hadrian / Shutterstock.com

Some of that research was conclusive enough that it led to a Washington Post op-ed: "Yes, mass shootings tend to produce copycats. So do terror attacks."

Brigitte Nacos, an adjunct professor in political science at Columbia University, blames the media for that contagion effect. In some ways, the logic is common sense: describing how a terrorist or shooter planned their attack, why they did it, what weapons they used and how they got away with it doesn't just inspire people already at risk of being violent, it informs them.

For organizations like ISIS, the media arguably also does some of their legwork. Part of their mission is getting a certain message or narrative out to non-radicalized people in the hopes of converting them to their cause. Along with using YouTube, message boards and chat rooms, some common narratives seen in media coverage following the attacks inadvertently amplifies the very message ISIS is trying to spread: that people who support their ideology successfully "martyr" themselves for the cause.

Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at EAFIT University in Medellín, Colombia, looked at over 60,000 terror attacks from 1970 to 2012 and analyzed the media coverage and frequency of those attacks. 

"Terrorist organizations receive extensive media attention," Jetter told The Guardian. "Whether it is the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram or, recently, ISIS, terrorism is everywhere on TV stations, newspapers and the radio. We also know that terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear and recruit followers."

His work found that a single additional New York Times article on a terror attack in a certain country led to an 11 to 15 percent increase in the number of ensuing attacks in that country.

So, what can we in the media do better?

For one, the media should do our best not to make terrorists famous. Where possible, we should stop naming them and stop contributing to the narrative that they are martyrs or that their lives were somehow remarkable and worthy of our attention because they committed a significant act of violence. If they built a bomb, let's use our better judgement and only disclose that they made it using supplies you can buy at Walmart as absolutely necessary. If they used a gun, let's apply that same judgement when weighing whether to explain how they got it. 

Instead of making people like the Sandy Hook or San Bernardino shooters household names, we should tell the stories of the victims instead. We should cover the victims, whose lives were taken too soon, and ensure that they are the people we remember from an attack.

These are all things we try to do at A Plus. We also do our best to elevate the heroes, not the villains. After the London attack, we told the story of the politician who rushed into harm's way to give a police officer CPR. After the Manchester attack, we highlighted the homeless man who gave first aid to children.

As reporters, we have evidence-based guidelines about how to report on suicides and gun violence, meant to prevent well-intentioned reporters from accidentally encouraging contagion.

It's about time we rethought how we're reporting terrorism, too. 

For more political coverage, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter

Cover photo: Shutterstock / Lenscap Photography


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