Should Terrorism be Reported in the News?
In the New York Times (read it here without registering), columnist John Tierney argues that the media is performing a public disservice by writing about all the suicide bombings in Iraq. This only serves to scare people, he claims, and serves the terrorists' ends.
Some liberal bloggers have jumped on this op-ed as furthering the administration's attempts to hide the horrors of the Iraqi war from the American people, but I think the argument is more subtle than that. Before you can figure out why Tierney is wrong, you need to understand that he has a point.
Terrorism is a crime against the mind. The real target of a terrorist is morale, and press coverage helps him achieve his goal. I wrote in Beyond Fear (pages 242-3):
Morale is the most significant terrorist target. By refusing to be scared, by refusing to overreact, and by refusing to publicize terrorist attacks endlessly in the media, we limit the effectiveness of terrorist attacks. Through the long spate of IRA bombings in England and Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, the press understood that the terrorists wanted the British government to overreact, and praised their restraint. The U.S. press demonstrated no such understanding in the months after 9/11 and made it easier for the U.S. government to overreact.
Consider this thought experiment. If the press did not report the 9/11 attacks, if most people in the U.S. didn't know about them, then the attacks wouldn't have been such a defining moment in our national politics. If we lived 100 years ago, and people only read newspaper articles and saw still photographs of the attacks, then people wouldn't have had such an emotional reaction. If we lived 200 years ago and all we had to go on was the written word and oral accounts, the emotional reaction would be even less. Modern news coverage amplifies the terrorists' actions by endlessly replaying them, with real video and sound, burning them into the psyche of every viewer.
Just as the media's attention to 9/11 scared people into accepting government overreactions like the PATRIOT Act, the media's attention to the suicide bombings in Iraq are convincing people that Iraq is more dangerous than it is.
I'm not advocating official censorship, but there's no reason the news media can't reconsider their own fondness for covering suicide bombings. A little restraint would give the public a more realistic view of the world's dangers.
Just as New Yorkers came to be guided by crime statistics instead of the mayhem on the evening news, people might begin to believe the statistics showing that their odds of being killed by a terrorist are minuscule in Iraq or anywhere else.
I pretty much said the same thing, albeit more generally, in Beyond Fear (page 29):
Modern mass media, specifically movies and TV news, has degraded our sense of natural risk. We learn about risks, or we think we are learning, not by directly experiencing the world around us and by seeing what happens to others, but increasingly by getting our view of things through the distorted lens of the media. Our experience is distilled for us, and it’s a skewed sample that plays havoc with our perceptions. Kids try stunts they’ve seen performed by professional stuntmen on TV, never recognizing the precautions the pros take. The five o’clock news doesn’t truly reflect the world we live in -- only a very few small and special parts of it.
Slices of life with immediate visual impact get magnified; those with no visual component, or that can’t be immediately and viscerally comprehended, get downplayed. Rarities and anomalies, like terrorism, are endlessly discussed and debated, while common risks like heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and suicide are minimized.
The global reach of today’s news further exacerbates this problem. If a child is kidnapped in Salt Lake City during the summer, mothers all over the country suddenly worry about the risk to their children. If there are a few shark attacks in Florida -- and a graphic movie -- suddenly every swimmer is worried. (More people are killed every year by pigs than by sharks, which shows you how good we are at evaluating risk.)
One of the things I routinely tell people is that if it's in the news, don't worry about it. By definition, "news" means that it hardly ever happens. If a risk is in the news, then it's probably not worth worrying about. When something is no longer reported -- automobile deaths, domestic violence -- when it's so common that it's not news, then you should start worrying.
Tierney is arguing his position as someone who thinks that the Bush administration is doing a good job fighting terrorism, and that the media's reporting of suicide bombings in Iraq are sapping Americans' will to fight. I am looking at the same issue from the other side, as someone who thinks the media's reporting of terrorist attacks and threats has increased public support for the Bush administration's draconian counterterrorism laws and dangerous and damaging foreign and domestic policies. If the media didn't report all of the administrations's alerts and warnings and arrests, we would have a much more sensible counterterrorism policy in America and we would all be much safer.
So why is the argument wrong? It's wrong because the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure. Once we start hiding pieces of reality from the public -- either through legal censorship or self-imposed "restraint" -- we end up with a government that acts based on secrets. We end up with some sort of system that decides what the public should or should not know.
Here's one example. Last year I argued that the constant stream of terrorist alerts were a mechanism to keep Americans scared. This week, the media reported that the Bush administration repeatedly raised the terror threat level on flimsy evidence, against the recommendation of former DHS secretary Tom Ridge. If the media follows this story, we will learn -- too late for the 2004 election, but not too late for the future -- more about the Bush administration's terrorist propaganda machine.
Freedom of the press -- the unfettered publishing of all the bad news -- isn't without dangers. But anything else is even more dangerous. That's why Tierney is wrong.
And honestly, if anyone thinks they can get an accurate picture of anyplace on the planet by reading news reports, they're sadly mistaken.
Posted on May 12, 2005 at 9:49 AM • 43 Comments