Monday, August 01, 2005

Car Crash TV

In October 1977, a Lufthansa aircraft was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. There were 86 passengers, 2 pilots, and 3 stewardesses on board, plus the 4 terrorists. At Aden airport the terrorists executed the pilot, Jurgen Schumann. Schumann had been secretly passing information to the authorities using his cockpit radio. When the terrorists discovered this they forced Schumann to his knees and shot him in the head.

The linked article doesn't say how the terrorists discovered what the pilot had been doing. They heard about it on a radio news broadcast they were listening to. They listened to the report and responded by killing Schumann. This, sadly, is absolutely true.

This one specific and tragic example starts to illustrate the very strange relationship that exists between terrorism and the media. It's sometimes refered to as a symbiotic relationship (normally by people with beards and questionable dress sense). It's not only a strange relationship, it's also a slightly secretive one. The media doesn't really like to talk about. It's the elephant in the press room if you like.

Let's leave aside the terrorists goals and motivations and look at the strategy they employ. Starting at the beginning, it's obvious that terrorists deliberately intend to create a climate of terror. Their strategy is almost always an attempt to create fear within a target population in order to provoke unrest, disorder, anxiety and so forth. Terrorists can't win a conventional war so they generate fear to try to achieve whatever goals they might have. Straightforward enough.

Now consider the first priority of news media organisations*. It is not to provide us with news. The first priority is to make money for the owners of the organisation. It's why they exist. Their news coverage is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It's a fine example of capitalism at work**. Increased sales and increased profits equals increased returns on investment. Hurray!

It's important to recognise that the news we're presented with has been through the filtering process of the media organisations. That filter can distort the news. It isn't necessarily an intentional process (although it probably is in some instances). The problem is that inherent incentives in the system tend to distort the news in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Let's go back to fear. Fear sells. It's slightly weird if you think about it but it's undeniable true. It's what causes us to slow down to get a good look at the car crash in the other lane. This is at the centre of the strange relationship between terrorism and the media. In a very real and measurable sense, terrorist acts provide positive benefits for news organisations. Sales go up, audience figures soar, more money is made. You could actually put a monetary value on each terrorist act for each media organisation if you really wanted to. Let's not try that though. The point is that the terrorists and the media both gain something through the media portrayal of the terrorist actions. It's a coincidental relationship, there's no coordination between the terrorists and the media. It's just that they both happen to benefit from the same activity: the reporting of terrorist acts. In fact, it's been documented that terrorist acts have been carried which were specifically timed to generate maximum media coverage.

The distortions which can occur in the media under these circumstances can be quite severe. There is a systematic incentive to exaggerate the amount of "fear" portrayed in media reports. This not only helps keep sales high, but has the side effect of boosting the terrorists attempts to spread fear. It's a tangled web and it's one the media ought to consider before writing headlines like this. The relationship means that the media ought to show restraint in their reporting of terrorist activities and understand their wider responsibilities to our society. I'm afraid that most organisations seem to have failed in this. We are presented with wild claims of a "clash of civilizations". A clash of civilizations? I think you'll find you need two civilizations for that, not one and a few nutters with bombs.

There is a silver lining in this though. We've seen that media activities coincidentally provide a boost to terrorist strategy. The government tolerates this partly because it suits their agenda (but that's for another post), partly because of the right to free speech, and partly because this really isn't a national emergency. Even with the media's (inadvertant) help, the terrorists are not going to succeed in any meaningful way. Our society will not collapse because of a few maniacs trying to kill us. We've survived a lot worse than anything these guys can bring to the table. Our worst enemy in this "war" is our own reaction to the terrorists. If there really was a national emergency, the government would take a far firmer line on the media coverage of the terrorist activities. This gives us a useful guide so we'll be able to tell if things actually do start to get very dangerous***. If the media starts to minimise the fear factor instead of boosting it, we'll know that the squeeze has been put on and the government is seriously worried. As things are, with the government quite content for the media to speculate hysterically on the terrorist threat, we can be pretty confident that it isn't a real danger to national security. When the Times starts saying it might not be as bad as it looks, that's when it's time to buy a bomb shelter.

Just to be clear (we'll have no straw men here), this isn't an attempt to deny that there are terrorists out to kill us. There are. The point is that the media presents this information in a way which tends to exaggerate the dangers we face from these terrorists. There is often a lack of a proper perspective in their reporting. Perspective like mentioning that you are still far more likely to be killed in a car crash than by a terrorist. No-one is declaring war on cars and yet they kill far more people in the UK than terrorists do. Why are we prepared to give up so much to combat the second, but almost nothing to combat the first? Are the lives of those killed on our roads less important to our society? No, it not that. It's because the media doesn't really bother. It's old predictable everyday news. It's not good for boosting your circulation. Terrorism though, it's unpredictable, violent, spectacular, newsworthy...

A final thought. What would happen if we were to say that all news media organisations were banned from covering terrorist attacks? It's difficult to imagine in the world we live in today, but imagine it was possible. Consider how you'd feel if you had no idea the "war" on terror was happening. What if you didn't know about the attacks of 7th July or 11th September? Of course many people actually witnessed these attacks but what if that information had not been disseminated by the media? There'd be a symbiotic breakdown if you will. There's a strong argument that this would reduce the likelihood of further terrorist attacks. That's not a right I've heard the media suggesting we give up in the "war" on terror. (Not that it's a good idea, free speech and all that.)

* The BBC and other public service broadcasters excluded. As I think I've said before, that's why the BBC coverage of terrorism tends to be rather at odds with most other media sources.

** I'm not a Socialist. Here's my economic position in very small nutshell: mixed economy = good, oligopoly markets = bad, more government regulation of the "free market" economy = yes, see oligopoly markets = bad.

***I'm talking about national security. There are dangers to our citizens but not to our society.

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