Is There a Link Between Mass-Media and Mass-Murder?

This story was first published on Vice


Hardly a week goes by when scenes of terror don't flash across our various screens—the maimed and murdered lying in the wake of a truck, bloodied bodies outside a mosque or concert arena.

Al Qaeda perfected terrorism as a spectacle with 9/11, and George W. Bush vowed to eradicate their particular evil, launching two wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—that seem to have done little more than spawn ISIS, the faltering, maniacal group that appears as hungry for world domination as it does for media attention.

After each bombing, knife, truck, or gun attack, the Internet becomes flooded with information and speculation, and in the throes of violent attacks, the reportage often goes unchecked. Dr. Michael Jetter, a behavioural economist at the University of Western Australia, studies media coverage of terrorism. By analysing day-to-day coverage of Al Qaeda on four major US television networks between 9/11 and the end of 2015, Jetter has produced research that suggests the way the media reports terrorism can actually lead to further attacks.

VICE caught up with Jetter to talk about his latest study, the rise of ISIS, and how the media can do a better job of covering terrorism.

VICE: What drew you to study the effect media has on terrorism?
Michael Jetter: So I looked more into the topic of terrorism in general four or five years ago. I noticed that there wasn't that much done on an empirical level. And especially then connecting it to the media, which seems to be an obvious thing because almost any definition of terrorism implies that the media is needed for terrorists to reach their goal.

So what is the goal of terrorism?
In the literature they usually distinguish between three goals. The first one is to spread fear in a target society. The second one is to spread their message. So if you think about ISIS, it's the idea they have a supposedly Muslim caliphate. And then the third one is to recruit followers. And for all of these you need some sort of media.

Terrorist attacks are almost never actually targeted at the people that suffer directly. It's almost always used to send a message. And that message can only be sent if there is some sort of media involved.

Your research also looks at disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, that results in decreased reporting of terrorism. What effect does this have on terrorism?
I find evidence that if you decrease media coverage of Al Qaeda, then you see an overall decrease in attacks. It's not just the timing of the attacks, it's not just that they picked specific days and weeks where they believed they would get coverage. It's that overall they attack less if the media coverage is less.

So you think that the wider effect of terrorist organisations spreading their message or propagating fear would be less effective if terrorism wasn't on the minds of the public.

Would terrorist attacks slow or even stop if the media stopped covering terrorism?
I don't think so immediately, but I think certainly in the long run if we fundamentally changed our coverage of terrorism we would see substantially fewer attacks.

ISIS has now superseded Al Qaeda as the world's leading terrorist organisation. They lend themselves very well to media sensationalism in the West. Do you think there is a strong link between the media's reporting of terrorism and subsequent ISIS attacks?
If you take a step back and think about why ISIS was making a movie out of beheading people or burning people—these really terrible, terrible movies—the only reason why they're doing this is exactly to create more media coverage. That is the sole purpose. So the way to potentially diminish those sort of actions is to just not give them the coverage that they seek.

Would this help in the so-called "lone-wolf" attacks, like the Manchester bombing, when the news will often tell the story of the attackers life and why they were drawn towards extremist ideologies. They do receive a lot of fame. Does this kind of narrative may encourage aspiring jihadists?
You can think about lone wolves being encouraged by seeing other attackers receiving that sort of fame. And we both know that whenever something like that happens, most media unfortunately does give the perpetrators that fame. They do publish their life story and their picture and their name. And we have a lot of ideas from psychology, from political science, and so on that would suggest that this is the case; people who are on the verge of committing something like that might be encouraged if they see others receiving a lot of fame.

Last year the French newspaper Le Monde decided not to publish the names or identities of terrorists. Is this a step in the right direction?
My feeling is that it would be a step in the right direction. It would be denying these people the fame that they seek. So I do think that that's an interesting idea and something to think about. I think journalists would be served well to think about in general how they cover terrorism, especially whether they need to cover it to that extent.
I think a good comparison to be made is suicides. Not suicide attacks, but suicides. Journalists and all of us know very well is that that's a sensitive topic and we should cover it in a different way. So usually it's advised to talk of not suicides, but of incidents.
It is reported sometimes, when it needs to be reported, but in a very modest way and in a sensitive, sensible way. It might give us a good starting point as to how the media could get to a point of, for lack of a better word, self-monitoring or self-awareness.