Terrorism and the Media


Terrorism and the Media

The evolution of mass communication has altered disaster media coverage in the last two decades, thereby dramatically changing the scene of terrorism and how terrorists conduct their affairs. Unlike the nineteenth century, when terrorist attacks in one place would be known elsewhere a few days later, terrorists, in the last two decades, are aware of the penetration and power of broadcast technology (Cohen-Almagor, 2005). Hence, they manipulate the press to their advantage and need because they understand the extensive coverage of unusual events can be instrumental for defining their strategy. For example, German terrorist Michael Baumann wrote, “How It All Began,” highlighting how they immediately evaluated how Berlin newspapers reacted to and explained their actions (Cohen-Almagor, 2005).Baumann pointed out the importance of media manipulation in creating symbolism as part of their tactics for an attack.The audience exposed to the frightening and violent images of terror suffers psychological consequences, including distress, fury, shock, panic, the phobic avoidance of public places, and pain. Hence, there have been sentiments regarding the limitation of media broadcasts. The aim is to reduce the potential impact on both direct and indirect victims.

The coverage of terrorist activities by the media is anxiety-provoking for those individuals exposed indirectly. According to Shoshani and Slone (2008), the psychological toll on the audience is both short- and long-term because the events force viewers to confront an existential threat. The negative emotional consequences have been witnessed in a study of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, with evidence suggesting the overall increase in psychological impairment for the audience remotely viewing the activities on the television (Shoshani & Slone, 2008). The negative effect significantly relates to increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and non-diagnostic stress.The theory of protection motivation clarifies that personally threatening stimuli provoke automatic anxiety reactions and high defense motivation (Shoshani & Slone, 2008). Therefore, terrorist broadcast on media increases anxiety and anger states,the common immediate responses to disaster events. In other words, the viewers are in danger of becoming secondary victims of terrorist acts from their indirect exposure by viewing the media broadcasts of terrorism events.

Furthermore, there is a destabilizing effect of exposure to the terrorism-related images, which causes distress and fear among the public. Rubaltelli et al. (2018) observe that terrorists employ unintentionally indiscriminate violence to create fear and terror in their quest to attain their religious, political, or ideological goals. The violent acts are significantly oriented towards non-combatants or civilians, thereby causing the population to fear to be a target of future attacks. Hence, indirect exposure to terrorism by the media has psychological consequences, including social distress and fear. Besides, the direct victims of the violence are later exposed repeatedly to the traumatic events of terror, which causes them to relive their experiences. Therefore, the images induce negative effectthat causes the responders, the general public, and the direct victimsto feel threatened and fear the occurrence of violence (Rubaltelli et al., 2018). The stressful events related to terrorism acts contribute to mental representations that are vivid due to the spread of images by the media. Thus, when individuals think about the events, they recollect the dramatic and dreadful pictures, thereby triggering negative emotions like fear.

Furthermore, the media coverage of the successes of the terrorists’ violence generatesan exaggerated effect of the threat that traumatizes both the victims and non-victims. Bilgen (2012) argues that the drama of terrorism, which involves blood, human tragedy, danger, action, and shocking footage creates a dangerous symbiotic relationship between disaster and the press. The media organizations consider violence a central defining quality of the television culture that is critical to the financial momentum of the broadcasters. Therefore, the news organizations may resort to the sensationalization of the terrorist acts in the bid to captivate the audience and boost ratings and circulation (Bilgen, 2012).The profit-orientation and excessive exaggeration are detrimental to the morale of responders who work hard to perform heroic acts to save the victims. Besides, the violence-glorifying television culture is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the individuals affected directly by the terrorist incident since it is a form of victimization that escalates negative emotions. Therefore, the non-stop media coverage of terror and the exaggerated narratives create fear and the feeling of inadequacy for those participating in the recovery process.

Due to the controversial nature of media coverage of terrorism, there have been suggestions for the limitation of broadcasts. The aim is to reduce the potential effects on both the victims and non-victims. On the one hand, there is the suggestion to limit content-related aspects of coverage, including the information to release and the requirements of specific messages to publish (Ghetti, 2008). The limitation of information encompasses the police tactical details with the potential to prejudice the lives of the direct victims, such as hostages or anything that may be inflammatory or aggravating. The justification is for the information to be withheld, at least until the incident is over. Curtailing of the media also involves recommending the avoidance of sensationalism and relying on confining reports to the details the police disseminate, hence not publishing the group responsible for the attack or the terrorist tactics (Ghetti, 2008). Since most of the violence is publicity-seeking, the call for limiting the media is to ensure that there is no glorification of crime to the detriment of the victims and non-victims following the incident.

Nevertheless, the perspective that opposes the limitation of the media considers aspects of the freedom of information and the right to free speech to justify media coverage. Ghetto (2008) claims that the press defends its coverage of terror events and similar publicity-seeking crimes with the freedoms of expression and the press justification. Specifically, the proponents argue that coverage is an essential process for the discovery of the truth and advancing knowledge (Ghetti, 2008). Some members of the audience are seeking information and the facts about the event. Hence, they rely on the press to access all sides of the matter and to weigh options. Furthermore, free media is essential to self-governance, which is fulfilled by the audience’s right to be fully informed before making a decision. The public also has the right to know; thus, the media fulfills the highlighted goals while the viewers are uninvolved observers accessing reported information. The journalists believe in the freedom of speech, a right they enjoy by the unrestricted coverage of terrorist incidents.The newsworthiness of the attack also justifies media reporting because it is a part of journalistic practice.

Based on the contrasting opinions, the presence of media restrictions and legal and moral duties justifies the need to allow coverage of terrorist events. Importantly, the press has an obligation to impart real information to the audience; thus they require to cover actual events without censure (Shohani & Slone, 2008). The coverage can be crucial in changing the attitudes of the public that is viewing the incident as it occurs. For example, when the non-victims have a real image of the occurrences, they can empathize with the victims since they share in the pain of their experiences. Coverage can inspire the volunteer spirit, leading the audience to offer both material and moral support to the affected and their families.Nonetheless, the press must work within the confines of the professional codes of conduct, thereby avoiding the sensationalization of the terror incidents.The freedoms of speech and information are core elements of democratic societies; hence the media should be free to impart knowledge accurately.

Although the media should retain the right to cover terrorist events, the coverage will have detrimental effects on vulnerable populations, such as children. According to Tanielian and Stein (XXX), the exposure of children to terror acts contributes to distress, which forces their parents to spend more time talking with them. The reason for such behavior is that they are trying to reassure them in the face of fear. However, since terror also impacts negatively on the parents, there is an intensified psychological effect on the children because the adults are also living in distress. The parent-child conversations reveal the stress symptoms between both victims of the media coverage of violence. Tanielian and Stein (XXX) emphasize that the reassurance of the parents may heighten the children’s worries and psychological responses because some of the conversations may contain warnings about the avoidance of public places.Therefore, there are feelings of insecurity because of the concern about safety and expectations of danger.

Overall, broadcasting technology has altered the terrorism scene because attackers manipulate the press to suit their objectives. Coverage by the media significantly affects the victims and non-victims because it is anxiety-provoking. The psychological toll it takes on the audience is significant since terrorists employ violence to create fear and terror. There is also an exaggeration of the effect of the threat, which causes trauma for the victims and non-victims. The controversial nature of terrorism coverage has attracted sentiments about the limitation of the broadcast to reduce the adverse emotional outcomes. There is a proposition to limit content-related aspects of the terrorist events to avoid prejudicing the victims. However, the freedoms of the information and speech justify allowing reporting. The press must impart knowledge and cover the truth. Unfortunately, vulnerable populations, such as children, suffer distress from exposure to violent experiences.



Bilgen, A. (2012). Terrorism and the media: A dangerous symbiosis. E-International Relations.1-6.

Cohen-Almagor, R. (2005). Media coverage of acts of terrorism: Troubling episodes and suggested episodes. CJC, 30(3).

Ghetti, M. W. (2008). The terrorist is a star: Regulating media coverage of publicity-seeking crimes. Fed. Comm. LJ60, 481.

Rubaltelli, E., Scrimin, S., Moscardino, U., Priolo, G., & Buodo, G. (2018). Media exposure to terrorism and people’s risk perception: The role of environmental sensitivity and psychophysiological response to stress. British Journal of Psychology109(4), 656-673.

Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2008). The drama of media coverage of terrorism: Emotional and attitudinal impact on the audience. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism31(7), 627-640.

Tanielian, T. L., & Stein, B. D. (2006). Understanding and preparing for the psychological consequences of terrorism. Rand Health, 772-76.

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