The Media and Terrorism: Second-Hand Terrorism

by Brian K. Houghton and Neal A. Pollard, Directors, Terrorism Research Center

The demise of TWA Flight 800 likely was the result of accidental mechanical failure. However, by preying upon the public’s justified paranoia of terrorism, and by exacerbating a crisis environment with inflammatory speculation, false leads, and conspiracy spinning, the media created a general climate of fear among the American and international populace. This climate of fear is what terrorists strive to create. Yet as of this writing, the media was responsible for this atmosphere of fear. Does that make this tragedy an act of second-hand terrorism? In the drama that terrorists create, is the media culpable in its effects?

The media and terrorism hold a special relationship, as Ted Koppel, ABC anchor, has said

Let me put forward the proposition that the media, particularly television, and terrorists need one another, that they have what is fundamentally a symbiotic relationship. Without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and therefore it has no reason for being. And television without terrorism, while not deprived of all interesting things in the world, is nonetheless deprived of one of the most interesting.1

Behind the media’s attention to terrorism is, of course, public interest in it.2 However, the media is potentially culpable in spreading “propaganda” and fostering fear when it invokes its freedoms with a blind eye, without responsibility to the democracy that secures those freedoms for them. Richard Francis, former controller of the BBC for Northern Ireland, said the media must “contribute to the maintenance of the democracy which is under threat,” both by providing a forum where “the harshest differences of opinion” could be aired, and by courageous investigation and reporting.3

Critics of the press—those who would lay most culpability on the media—claim the digestion of staged events such as terrorist acts has transformed the First Amendment from an institution preserved in the interest of the community to a euphemism for the prerogative of reporters to consume their synthetic commodity while disguised in the “cult of objectivity.” However, the nature of modern global communications makes it very easy for any spectator to get sucked into any human drama unfolding in real-time. Intrusive reportage—when a reporter ceases passive observation of an incident and becomes part of its dynamic—is the point of culpability, at which the media are guilty of second-hand terrorism. Responsibility in reporting can be even more a “contribution to the maintenance of a democracy” than can a mindless invocation of the First Amendment.

1 “Terrorism and the Media: A Discussion,” Harper’s, October 1984.

2 Charles Kegley, ed. International Terrorism New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990, p.158.

3 Alastair Hetherington, News, Newspapers, and Television Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985, p.289

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