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.

Tiernan writes:

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 • 46 Comments

Comments

Israel TorresMay 12, 2005 9:59 AM

In all actuality it is about time Americans removed the blinders to see everday activity around the world.

Sure it may alter how people think, but that is all how things are supposed to work. Eventually people will stop being scared and move on to reasonable expectations. For example the numerous terror alerts that were shifting up and down so fast that it really didn't seem to matter and people pretty much grew numb to them. All part of the human mind where acceptance of situation is norm.

Americans must learned not to be scared... which is all part of growing up.

Israel Torres

Matt KleidermanMay 12, 2005 10:21 AM

There's a complicating issue here. The targets of terrorist acts in Iraq aren't (by and large, and recently) consumers of American media - they're Iraqis. So, if the Iraqi media downplay the attacks it might reduce the efficacy of the attacks. However, the behavior of the American media Tierney is criticizing is peripheral to Iraqis security concerns.

Bruce SchneierMay 12, 2005 10:25 AM

"There's a complicating issue here. The targets of terrorist acts in Iraq aren't (by and large, and recently) consumers of American media - they're Iraqis. So, if the Iraqi media downplay the attacks it might reduce the efficacy of the attacks. However, the behavior of the American media Tierney is criticizing is peripheral to Iraqis security concerns."

Although presumably one of the goals of the Iraqi terrorists is to weaken American popular support for the occupation.

Alex KruppMay 12, 2005 10:28 AM

"And honestly, if anyone thinks they can get an accurate picture of anyplace on the planet by reading news reports, they're sadly mistaken."

Does this mean that if I want to understand the world I have to go outside?

B.D.May 12, 2005 10:37 AM

This makes me think of the "secret" report that was released in PDF recently where the redacted information was easily revealed. What troubled me about that report was not that someone made an error by redacting "sensitive" information using an unsecure method, but rather what the information was exactly.

I read through it and I saw very little that I would consider sensitive enough to redact. In fact, much of it should, in my opinion, be revealed and reported. Items such as the number of attacks weekly on the stretch of road taken by the Italian security, the reporter, and their driver should be known so that the public can better understand what it is that some of their fellow citizens are facing.

SowbugMay 12, 2005 10:49 AM

In this context, terrorism is analogous to spam. Both are examples of the tragedy of the commons: by exploiting freely available resources (free coverage by the news media in the case of terrorism, or free transmission by the infrastructure of the internet in the case of spam), the perpetrators benefit far beyond the cost they incur. ISPs don't assume an absolute duty to deliver all email; must the media report all news events, even those specifically designed to abuse the news reporting system?

Jack KrupanskyMay 12, 2005 11:03 AM

Unless you've actually been at the scene of a news report, you have no idea of the disparity between the impression conveyed by the news report and the relatity of what actually happened, let alone the reality a short distance from the scene.

I'm not in favor of suppressing or censoring "facts", and I'm not in favor of interfering with market economics as the primary regulating mechanism for "news", but I do think we need to do a much better job of educating people on how to interpret "news" reports.

As an example, consider almost any act of violence and then consider the degree to which people only a mile away go about their lives as if nothing had happened. Toss in some intensive "news coverage" and then the dynamic changes, but in a somewhat random manner.

Sad to say, too many people are "news addicts". Let's help them kick the habit, focusing on the "demand" side of the equation rather than being heavy-handed and trying to suppress the "supply" of this addictive "drug".

The really good news is that a lot of common, decent people have developed an immunity to the siren call of "the media". Sure, if "Their President" says we're at war they'll follow his "orders", but they deeply understand that the media is focused more on manipulating them for financial gain than on enlightening them. Yes, a significant minority are susceptible to media manipulation and their whining does have a significant impact on overall social policies, but let's try to focus on building on the good and the strong so that over time the weak will gradually fall away. Not that I expect anybody will follow my prescription.

-- Jack Krupansky

pigletMay 12, 2005 11:06 AM

I have to say Tiernan is just being cynical. "people might begin to believe the statistics showing that their odds of being killed by a terrorist are minuscule in Iraq or anywhere else." They are currently greater in Iraq than anywhere else, and if the victims were Americans instead of (almost always) Iraqis, Tiernan wouldn't dare write such a sentence. Or maybe, Tiernan doesn't count the Iraqis as victims anyway, maybe he IS talking only about the odds of Americans being killed in Iraq.

On the other hand, sure you can make the argument that even in Iraq with almost daily bombings, only a small percentage of people are killed by terrorism. It is also true that even the 3000 deaths on 9/11 were "statistically insignificant" but of course, Tiernan wouldn't write that.

He only wants us to forget that there was no terrorism in Iraq before Bush took the "war on terror" there, and that the terrorists have been able to get huge amounts of explosives because the US army didn't care to guard them.

Michael AhlersMay 12, 2005 11:07 AM

All of this assumes the bombings in Iraq are acts of terrorism in the first place. The attacks seem to be aimed at strategic targets, not those which will impose a huge number of civilian casualties. Iraqi security facilities, American military facilities, and so on, and not pubs, schools, and places of business. Why aren’t the insurgents freedom fighters, rebelling against an occupation? When you look at it that way, it is extremely appropriate for our media to continue presenting the grim picture of Iraq to the public.

Javier KohenMay 12, 2005 11:12 AM

This is an interesting analysis. In fact, Michael Moore does a good job analyzing the USA government's terrorist propaganda machine in his Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary. There he also addresses the abuse of the terror threat level to keep the citizens in line.

I understand that many people aren't exactly fans of Moore's work (neither am I), but the guy has a point. If only more people got to watch him in the states... not so paradoxically, he seems more popular in "the other" America (the 'latin' one) and Europe. Besides, if you're not offended by him, he makes you laugh, so it's worth checking.

jcMay 12, 2005 11:24 AM

Snowbug wrote:
>In this context, terrorism is analogous
>to spam. Both are examples of the
> tragedy of the commons: by exploiting
>freely available resources (free coverage
>by the news media in the case of
>terrorism, or free transmission by the
>infrastructure of the internet in the case
>of spam), the perpetrators benefit far
>beyond the cost they incur.

Is it cynical or simply stupid ??? we are not talking of the yesterday stupid story around a CESSNA but about people dying, I know that they are mainly not white and only 10's are dying daily so this is irrelevant.

Yesterday, in Italy, the coverage of the CESSNA incident was 10 minutes compared to 5s
on a car bombing attack.

Bruce I will be interested to know the probability to die from a car bombing in Irak (were the figure in your book or Moore's book).

BrianiacMay 12, 2005 11:38 AM

Isn't the real solution to disallow advertising during true news programs, and to require "current events" or opinion shows to be prominently labelled as such?

MichaelMay 12, 2005 11:53 AM

These reports don't scare me. It continues to remind how stupid some people can get in support of a cause. You would think after a while they would kill themselves off... Besides, it is a long way away from where I am.

Emmanuel PirschMay 12, 2005 12:46 PM

"Americans must learned not to be scared..."

It's no just Americans who needs to learn that... I've recently posted on my blog a story about the scaring effect of terrorism (http://www.bloglines.com/blog/terminus?id=8)

Maybe a way to make people less affraid would be to include daily "cause of death" statistics. This will show the improbability of being killed in a terrorist attack.

Israel TorresMay 12, 2005 12:53 PM

@Emmanuel

I think the issue of "Americans" being called out is because as far as news/media dissemination has proved historically it is the most censored channel of information compared to more factual representation in other countries.

In chatting with others it appears that Americans are always the last on the train and usually have a hard time accepting something that everyone else understands as real and happening.

In essence we (as Americans) are shielding ourselves from ourselves... All while the rest of the world laughs at us and calls us ignorant pigs.

Israel Torres

Ari HeikkinenMay 12, 2005 1:34 PM

Pretty good analysis, actually. This is actually the best analysis of anything I recall Bruce writing about so far. This is how people should write. Like bringing out views of both sides and then making a point, instead of just being lazy and saying someone's just wrong on sight. This is the writing style to get people listen. In this case I totally agree that it would be insane keeping things like this secret. Secrecy would only mean your government could do whatever they want, waste your tax money and fail as much as they want, because no one would know. By making their mistakes (in Iraq for instance) public makes them strive harder to actually fix them. Why would they bother at all if their voters wouldn't know? As for news reports, you only know how off topic they sometimes are when you're involved in something they write about, so people should always approach news reports with open mind and common sense (remember that most things reporters write about aren't their expertise). No writer is expert at everything..

ProbitasMay 12, 2005 1:52 PM

"Although presumably one of the goals of the Iraqi terrorists is to weaken American popular support for the occupation."

Were that the case, I would think that more Americans would be targeted. I believe that by killing anybody cooperating with the new government, they are sending the primary message to Iraqi citizens; Cooperation equals death. Bruce's quote make sense if considered in the context that, if Americans are left standing alone, the public will would be sapped sooner. That, however, may be giving them too much credit. If they consider all that, and act based upon it, then they have probably also figured out that Americans have short attention spans. The bulk of Americans have already stopped paying attention, without need for restraint or censorship of any kind.

Precision BloggerMay 12, 2005 2:03 PM

In this case Tierney's argument is just plain silly. The main effect of suicide bombings in Iraq is on the Iraqis. from visiting Israel I know the pervasive dread that settles when people know that a suicide bomber might be about to show up.

How can NOT WRITING ABOUT THIS IN AMERICA have any effect on that?

In fact, the world does not understand suicide bombing. We don't know why people volunteer, and we don't know who will or will not use such volunteers. We have to figure this out, and we need lots of facts to do so.
- Precision Blogger
http://precision-blogging.blogspot.com

the professorMay 12, 2005 2:34 PM

This arguement isn't worth considering. Back in the twenties they had a commission on presidential assasinations. The Verdict - if you want to curtail assassinations and attempted assassinations do not allow the media to publish the name of the perpetrator.

Think about it, Booth wanted to kill Lincoln for federalism and the civil war - Hinckley went after Regan so Jodi foster would know who he is.

Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately) this flies in the face of a free press.


griblichMay 12, 2005 4:25 PM

seems to me these actions in Iraq are not terrorism directed at US opinion, but rather stragetic attacks on targets associated with the construction of what would have to be seen as a government with no credibility. Avoiding reports on these events serves no purpose except that of making Americans even more ignorant and self-absorbed.

more to the point, anyway, is that if we lived 200 years ago who says we would have a muted reaction to horrendous events reported to us in pamphlets and newspapers of the time? passions were certainly inflamed by Thomas Paine and later the Republican versus Federalist print-fights in our history, even without well-coiffed newsreaders and mesmerizing pixel action.

iheartwarsMay 12, 2005 4:41 PM

I'm going to make a case in point, derive from it what you want.

I do not currently watch "the news" or at least not the 30 minute versions. I will usually read Fark and Slashdot, and that is it.

So essentially, right now I don't know about any terrorist attacks, but I know that they happen, and I wish they would stop. But I could not really expect anything else, because we are still, in some respects, at war.

However, this is a bit different than last summer, when I was constantly paying attention to Daily Kos (A well written, although sometimes alarmist liberal blog). Then I knew a really good amount about what was going on in Iraq, and around the world. But, to tell you the truth, I can't say it made me anything but mad, and aggrevated that I could not change people's mind, do something about it, etc.

What I'm trying to say here, is that yes, Tierney's argument would be perfect, and well suited for an ideal world where people understand that things (in this case terrorist attacks) still do happen even if they are not reported. I view it similar to the idea of making laws that prevent car accidents, or petty theft. You never really hear of these things, but you know laws against them are (generally) good for the public.

However, this is not a perfect world. And a much larger portion of people are much more stupid than you would predict.

So Essentially, in my view, Tierney's argument works like communism. In that, idealy it rocks, but realistically, it can't work well.

VisigothMay 12, 2005 4:58 PM

Yeah, this is a real complicated issue. Should the news report news and events? Or should they regurgitate press releases and talking points. Yeah that's real tough!!!!!!!!! Facts are facts. Context is in the eye of the beholder, apparently the more ideological, the more jaundiced the eye. Balance is in the eye of the beholder. Context and balance don't change facts. Facts is Facts.

Here a thought, knowing that facts are stubborn things, if you don't want facts reported, don't change the reporting, change the facts.

Ye shall know the truth and it will set you free, unless the truth diverges from the talking points and your pre-misconcieved notions.

Tough issue. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!

pigletMay 12, 2005 5:38 PM

"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." (Bruce)

griblich makes a good point. Emotional reaction doesn't depend on whether you get to see terrible pictures live on TV. Our ancestors surely were not indifferent to what happened around them, probably less than we today. Some have observed that radio coverage of 9/11 was much more appropriate than the endless repetition of that video sequence that was (reportedly) shown on the news channels. In the sense that radio allows the listener to be closer to the people on the scene (you concentrate fully on what they are saying) and at the same time allows more distance, by giving the listener room to imagine the scene in their own head. TV immediately fills up the "image space" in the viewer's head, while transmitting much less information than radio or print. Print photographs can also be much more emotionally intensive than TV because the viewer usually spends more time reflecting on a single, well chosen image. TV doesn't promote empathy, or much less than radio, print, photographs and oral reports.

What is different about modern media is not that they provoke more emotion, it's the uniformity of the impression (maybe emotion) they convey. Rapidity, ubiquity, satiation. We are visual animals, what we are shown we absorb immediately. On TV there is not time, no room for reflection. Which makes it such an ideal tool for manipulation and thought control.

Davi OttenheimerMay 12, 2005 8:19 PM

"Terrorism is a crime against the mind"

Interesting turn of phrase, Bruce. Crime seems to be the operative word. If you knowingly mislead the public, are you committing a crime against the mind? Or in other words, how do you distinguish terrorism from other crimes against the mind? I am surprised to read your description of the Bush Administration as a "terrorist propaganda machine", but I agree with your support of a free press.

Here's a very informative look at the body-counts reported from Iraq, and war news bias, written by a Vietnam vet:

http://www.statesmanjournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/...

"We are back at it again, shrugging about each body count report and gloating about the spread of democracy throughout the Mideast. This patriotic veneer masks the crumbling of our moral fiber."

Curt SampsonMay 12, 2005 10:34 PM

Bruce, I think you may be misreading this article. I certainly don't see it as a call not to report suicide bombings. He's just saying that we don't need to report them in full front-page glory: "When the other reporters and I finished filling our notebooks, we wondered morosely if we could have done a service to everyone - victims, mourners, readers - by reducing the story to a box score."

I do rather like the idea of putting reporting in context, though. When reporting that someone died of some cause, you could also give out the rank of that cause in overall deaths, or something similar. "22 people died in a terrorist bombing, which is the 179th most common cause of death for Americans" has rather less impact than the more typical way of reporting that.

But it's not going to happen. News, and television news especially, is entertainment.

Arturo QuirantesMay 13, 2005 2:34 AM

Being from a country that has been fighting terrorism for over 30 years (Spain), I am surprised as to how Americans tacke terrorism. On 10S, it was a nuisance that might only affect you when traveling abroad. The next day, every neighbor can be a terrorist, or can be blown by a terrorist bomb. The wagons are circled, shoot-on-sight is the call ... and news media allow for little reasoning.

One of the things we've learned is that the people MUST be informed, nor overalarmed. It might play on the terrorist' s side as they want to spread terror and show how powerful they are, but we would be granting them the point if we just let them spread FUD and not knowing what is going on. Can you imagine 11S without media coverage? People would still get word of it (people walk, travel, use the phone), but the news would be distorted every time it goes around the corner. By the time the news reach Europe, we would hear that the entire West Coast has been target to multiple nuclear attacks!

There is no point in hiding the facts. It only spreads FUD and makes it think the bad guys are more powerful that they really are. Maybe that can help explain why Madrid recovered from 11M faster than New York from 11S. OK, the Twin Towers attack was far more destructive and lethal. But I'm talking about the psychological side. One week after 11M, Madrileños were back to "normal" state. The bottom line was "we've been hit hard, but we're strong, let's move on"

Of course, showing the sames images over and over again on TV, or playing with alert color codes, so we're scared only benefits duct-tape makers.

mjkMay 13, 2005 10:39 AM


The trick of using your enemie's media against it only works when emotional arguments work. Emotional arguements do not work when your enemie's people have more access to information. The internet provides this access. The more info your audience has the less power emotional arguments have on them. In Ghandi's, Martin Luther King's, and the Viet Cong's day, access to information was really limited, so emotional arguments worked great.

If your audience is ignorant you dont need to have a good arguement when you hold up a dead baby. All you have to do is show people the dead baby, and thats it, you win. It doesnt matter that you are advocating a backwards upside down view of the world. Thanks to the internet emotional arguments are less effective.

As far as I am concerned, MSM censorship already exists, so censoring it further doesnt mean anything to me. I could care less about it. I dont trust the MSM at all.

The sooner people stop paying attention to emotional arguements the better.

acMay 13, 2005 5:57 PM

All of the analysis here seems to overlook what I consider to be the most important fact about terrorism and the media--the greatly expanded definition of "terrorism".

Assuming our focus here is on Iraq, the US media refers to pretty much all insurgent activity as terrorism. Historically, however, the term "terrorism" was reserved for intentional attacks on CIVILIAN targets. Under this definition, which until recently was fairly widely accepted, many of the insurgent attacks are still classified as terrorist attacks--attacks on civilians, marketplaces, mosques, etc.

However, there are also plenty of attacks on non-civilian targets: military ("coalition" soldiers), mercenaries (private contractors), paramilitary (national guard, police). These attacks are more correctly called GUERRILLA attacks. i.e. the attacker is not a standard organized military entity, but the defender is. I'm not saying this makes these acts any less horrible, but they're not terrorism. If terrorism is so loosely defined as to apply to just anything that causes terror, was the slasher movie craze of the eighties a wave of terrorism?

So if we're talking about restricting news reports about terrorism, are we talking about just attacks on civilians? What about attacks on civilians by US soldiers? Don't we have a right to know if/when that happens?

Seems like a shady proposition at best. In days when teacher's unions are called terrorists, it's best to avoid restricting any free flow of information based on such a slippery term.

VanceMay 14, 2005 2:30 PM

"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."

Remember the Maine.

Bruce SchneierMay 15, 2005 3:49 PM

"Remember the Maine."

There are examples as far back as ancient Greece and Rome -- probably older -- of the public having strong emotional reactions to events.

I think it would be an interesting research project to look at those events throughout history, and see if modern technology has changed them to any degree.

My guess is that it has, significantly.

John CarterMay 15, 2005 3:56 PM

"Modern mass media, specifically movies and TV news, has degraded our sense of natural risk."

That is so true it hurts.

Now there's a business opportunity for you.

I would be quite willing to pay what my father used to pay for a newspaper + weekly newspaper for an eZine that monthly gave me an accurate summary of my (and my families) risks. eg. Health risks, financial risks, security risks.

Tailored to my country and demographic segment.

CJMay 15, 2005 7:30 PM

The news media rarely provides perspective and context. It's all about sensationalism. Fires, car chases, drive-by shootings and now add to the list - terrorist attacks in Iraq.

They decide to cover school shootings and suddenly everyone thinks there is an epidemic of gun violence when in actuality, statistics show that violence in schools has decreased over the past decade.

New reporting almost never helps viewers put the current tragedy they are reporting on in perspective because in most cases, it would minimize the emotional impact of the story. Thereby, counteracting, to some degree, the validity of them reporting on it in the first place.

Frank Woodman JrMay 16, 2005 12:46 AM

As has been said in several recent articles on this site the truth of the matter is that many things that aren't covered in the "news" are far more important than what is covered.

I've always pointed out that it's not news that where I live 300,000 thousand people go home every night, go to bed, sleep undisturbed and get up the next day to do it all over again with nothing happening to them that is considered as news worthy. That’s not news but it is reality and it should be kept in mind to help us judge the relative danger and importance of what they are covering as news.

It's the three idiot gang members that shoot at each other that gets covered. So we should all remember that the news has always distorted and damaged the public perception of what's really going on.

If the public doesn't learn to judge the news then they will forever live in fear of the wrong things being manipulated by who ever decides what is being shown.

As the man says if its news it's because it seldom happens and is unusual or it wouldn't be covered.

So you should have little fear of the things they are talking about and be looking for the real dangers in your life. Judging the importance of things by their real chance of happening and not some imagined danger to our safety is the real key to our security, piece of mind, and freedom.

Edward GardnerMay 16, 2005 9:22 AM

I should have read the blog after reading the newsletter. I replied with a catty "Remember the Alamo."

I expect the overstimulation of the media has changed the way we percieve disasters. But I think that 9/11 would have been seminal with or without media.

It's alot of bodies, alot of people we knew, and awfully close to home.

As for the overstimulation by the media, I tend to agree. I think the change it's induced is bad, but I think that change is making the events less important in our minds. Just like seeing reports of murders and muggings on nightly news over the years, our reactions have gone from shock and possibly sadness to "oh look, another murder in THAT part of town."

To the point of how it might be different, I expect emotions could be higher without the media. Pure imagination conjures some pretty powerful demons. It's playing "telephone" with news of that nature.

I don't disagree with much of anything that Bruce said in the essay, just that little bit about the media and emotion.

T.May 16, 2005 5:21 PM

It's of course difficult to imagine "most" people not hearing about 9/11 because CNN did not carry it as a story. Some stories move all by themselves. I certainly didn't hear it from CNN, that morning.

Three reasons why it doesn't matter if Tiernan is right or wrong in his views, however:

1) The very medium we're all using right now and the evolution of popular media should give us pause about how plausible any such reduction in coverage could actually ever be.

2) News information, content, is a data market and the suggestion here is to interfere in that market for another end, and I think few people with a real stake in that market would risk giving up ground to less conscientious media competitors.

3) There is an obvious conflict that is inherent here with regard to the need to downplay attacks (to reduce their power i.e. symbolic visual wallop) and the need for domestic politicians to get themselves elected (using platforms where these types of images are fertile political ground i.e. votes in the bank).

I can only conclude the genie isn't about to head back to the bottle anytime soon.

anonymousMay 16, 2005 9:05 PM

Alex Krupp wrote:

"Does this mean that if I want to understand the world I have to go outside?"

Possibly, yes.

SteveMay 17, 2005 11:54 AM

"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."

I'm not at all sure that this is true. The reactions to the most comprable event to take place in America that I can think of, Pearl Harbor, included thousands of young men marching into enlistment offices and signing up, and that was before the commercial advent of television. And race riots, many including hundreds of people were often whipped up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries based on communication no more sophisticated than word of mouth.

visitorMay 17, 2005 2:14 PM

For your information, in Switzerland and Germany, whenever somebody commits suicide by jumping in front of a train, it is _not_ being reported as such in the news (and it's not actually "news" as above, as such events happen several times a week).

The reason: reporting the suicide leads to copycats, and this correlation has been verified.

pigletMay 18, 2005 8:58 AM

"The people who sold us this war continue to insist that success is just around the corner, *and that things would be fine if the media would just stop reporting bad news*. But the administration has declared victory in Iraq at least four times. January's election, it seems, was yet another turning point that wasn't."
http://pkarchive.org/column/051605.html

griblichAugust 4, 2005 7:37 PM

Long time since this post was new, but I'll observe that I cried on 9/11 while listening to "coverage" of the WTC attack on the Howard Stern Show and 9:something AM. Shit....

Niall RyanMarch 23, 2006 3:52 PM

Thatcher's comment on the IRA was that they must be starved of the "oxygen of publicity". While this policy was largely ignored in the UK, it was in fact enacted into law in the Republic of Ireland. From 1971 to 1993, under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, it was illegal in Ireland to broadcast the voice of members of either the IRA, or even Sinn Fein. For example, Gerry Adam's voice was dubbed on Irish television up till 1993.

Interestingly, the reason behind this was to prevent excitation of public opinion. It was part of a broad policy of censorship on the part of Irish Government in an effort to prevent an aggrieved public potentially dragging the country into an armed conflict in Northern Ireland.

Successive Irish Governments believed for a long time that censorship would lead to apathy, and they were largely proved correct. It is likely that censorship in relation to terrorist atrocities in Iraq or elsewhere, would lead to even more public apathy about the fate of the country, and America's continued presence there.

An apathetic American public would not likely play into the terrorists hand's, but more likely would strengthen the position of any Government wanting to maintain a presence there.

OVGuillermoAugust 28, 2007 5:16 AM

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