Media Coverage on War & Terrorism.
"All is safe where the media is free" (Lipscomb & Berg, 1904). Close to two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson said these words and even today, a free media is the key cornerstone of democratic societies. However, what happens when the media is biased or influenced by events? This is the case with wars and terrorism. The media has been indirectly used by terrorist organizations to broaden fear and advance political goals. Margaret Thatcher, the Former prime minister stated that the media was the oxygen of terrorism (Miller, et al. 2004: Vera, 1991). In fact the relationship is not one way: even though terrorism cannot be labeled as oxygen of the media because the media will still continue to exist even without terrorism; in addition, the press doesn't profit from terrorism. It's worth noting that terrorism is an attractive gain for media coverage because terrorist activities make viewer ratings to increase which is the goal of all media stations. This symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism continues to influence and degrade the media's impartiality in news coverage.
On the other hand, the media has been massively influenced by military acts against terrorism as well as during battles and wars. Modern warfare has been tremendously changed by technology as well as by the media coverage on warfare. Technology has enabled the media to become an influential and active observer in armed conflict by informing the American public (Hoffman, 2006). Public opinion and support is vital to military activities and the military has in several occasions used the media to erode public critism or gain public support, e.g. In the World War 2, the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq; furthermore, media's influence on policies and national politics was evident during the Spanish-American war; the owner of the New York Journal who supported the American intervention in war used headlines which inflamed the public. Soon after, the US became involved in the war.
The media was also used to spread propaganda and censorship throughout World War 1 and the 2nd World War. The British actually targeted the media in America in order to garner support for American entry into the world war2. Therefore as early as the 1930's, the public in America has been an influential target. Overall, during these wars, the press knowingly published content intended to maintain the vital public support high, therefore losing their impartiality along the way (Gerges, 2005). In spite of the enemy propaganda campaign during the early wars; the war in Korea represented a point where the US enemies realized that the media was a weapon against American public support. For example, the Chinese negotiators stopped negotiations in order to lengthen the stalemate war so as to increase UN casualties as well as wear down US public opinion. Also throughout the gulf war, Saddam Hussein used the tricked the media to advance his own propaganda (Nacos, 2007). Recently, media influence has been brought into the lime light through the media coverage of operations in Rwanda and Somalia. Public outcry arose after the media broadcasted footage of a dead American soldier being dragged through streets.
Media influence on military events burst into the scene during the war in Vietnam. Television channels played a huge role in shaping the way Americans viewed the conflict. The media influenced the public to shift away from supporting the war by publicly criticizing the poor military and political strategies used in Vietnam which lead the public to question US involvement in the war (Ganor, 2002). In 1967, Walter Cronkite commented on national television that, "It's time for all Americans to accept that we are in a no-win situation in Vietnam and it's time for us to leave" many American citizens once again got interested in Vietnam and supported Cronkite's views. After all, he was one of the most trusted man in the US.
This "trusted media representatives" feature, exemplified by Cronkite came to be known as "television personality". Every news network employed the "military analysts" who became household names instantly. Their analysis was broadcasted to Americans even before actual war events were broadcasted. This lead to the generation of perceived truths which could not easily be countered especially in information intensive, fast paced, war environment (Muella, 2008). The television medium has become an intelligence source even for state security department such as the department of defense. General Powell referenced the Cable News Network during the Gulf War period as an intelligence source. In addition, defense officials often used the media to become updated on current affairs e.g. the navy made CNN available in all their vessels to keep sailors informed.
This raises the question, "Should the military rely on commercial news to gather intelligence?" If we continue to use such sources then, the next military operation or war may be a response to a news special report. The media has even been turned into a diplomatic tool by actions of George Bush and the Congress (Owen, 2009). They used the public media to communicate to Saddam Hussein throughout the Gulf war period via televised press conferences as well as televised floor debates. Is television really an effectively diplomatic channel? In my opinion it can lead to the sending of mixed opinions from the wrong people or even affect military outcomes when media orchestrations come into conflict with military strategy.
Journalists must submit stories on a daily basis based on incomplete information yet they do so with an air of authority. Furthermore, live TV coverage increases the problem since video images have their own perceptions. Television adds particular bias since a normal footage is about fifteen seconds yet it carries with it immense perceptions of wording and video. This huge compression of video, information as well as concise wording often distorts the original reality. Therefore TV sends the message out quickly but insufficiently (Wilson, 2008).
Competition also develops media coverage bias; the "scoop" is perceived as success. However, it's often based on incomplete and inaccurate reports. Finally, personalities lead to bias too. The tendency for people to focus on television personalities often lead to broadcast decisions which are based on fame motivations rather than facts. Journalists are normal people and they develop their stories based on their own views, comprehension and experiences of the situation.
Any military, enemy or friendly, uses the media in times of war. The American military no longer spreads propaganda through the media opting instead for truthful reporting. On the other hand, adversaries of the US use the American media as target for propaganda. Starting with the war in Korea, they have constantly attacked the public opinion of Americans; the Chinese orchestrated the Korean stalemate so that the media coverage of American casualties could wear out public support. In addition, the North Vietnamese used the media to spread propaganda.
Other influences created by the media are noble. A genuine use of television is to communicate American military objectives to the public as well as to the enemy. When the American public becomes informed; it enables the public to understand the ensuing military events (Bandura, 1988). On the other hand, informing the enemy can help avoid hostilities through airing evidence of resolve. This was the case when Saddam Hussein first suggested negotiations over television during the end of the Gulf war. Therefore the media can ease the progress of conflict termination. The media also influences public relations efforts which are aimed at achieving military recognition which helps the soldiers in the field to sustain their determination.
When analyzed through the terrorism perspective, the media has been term as a "theatre" because terrorist attacks are often carefully orchestrated to attract the attention of the press. Brian Jenkins stated that the media responds to terrorism with unbridled alacrity, they are totally unable to ignore these events which are fashioned particularly for their needs (Hoffman, 2006). There has been a perceived mutually beneficial relationship between the media and terrorists: According to Gerges Fawaz, "the use of the media by terrorist organizations such as al-qaida is extremely important for them." (Gerges, 2005, p.194) Some terrorist leaders such as Al-zawahiri have openly stated that part of the war is taking in the battlefield while the other is happening in the media." In addition, an Islamist magazine stated, "everything ought to be filmed because every frame is as good as a grenade fired at the enemy." (Quoted in: Economist, 2008)
According to Bruce Hoffman, "without media coverage, terrorist attacks would become arguably wasted; remaining only confined to the affected victims of the attack instead of the target audience." (Hoffman, 2006, p 186) Nacos Brigitte agrees: "If terrorist were deprived immense news coverage terrorism would be similar to the proverbial tree in the forest: if no individual becomes aware of an incident it's like it never occurred." (Nacos, 2007. p 175) Ganoz Boaz states it even better, "terrorist are not interested in the death of four, fourteen or even forty thousand people. Instead, they target the imagination of the population to work for them. They desire panic which cannot be achieved by mere declarations and threats. The warfare is all psychological." (Ganor, 2002) The media are well adapted to the purposes of terrorists, in addition, Yonah Alexander, states that terrorists have 3 purposes to intermingle with the media, i.e. recognition, legitimacy and attention. (Alexander et al. 1988)
Gerrits Robin focuses more on psychological relations between media and terrorists. According to him, intimidating enemies such as governments, gaining sympathy as well as creating fear and chaos are the key intrest of terrorists. (Vinson & Paletz, 1992) Albert Bandura wrote that the media is a tool for gaining sympathy, moral justification and intimidating the public. (Bandura, 1988) Nacos Brigitte combines these aspects of media coverage of terrorism from four perspectives. First, the media unknowingly conditions the target population for intimidation by terrorist. The second perspective argues that the media empowers terrorist organizations by spreading their motives. Thirdly, the media enables terrorist to command respect as well as sympathy of those who they claim to attack. Finally, the media enables terrorist organizations to attain quasi legitimate status as well as political status similar to those of genuine political organizations. Each terrorist organization use the media in different ways, by regularly showing up in the media, terrorist become legitimate representatives for the causes they stand for. The fact that the media treats them like legitimate, accepted and regular world leaders gives them a similar status.
The preference of media to broadcast stories reinforcing and confirming the dangers of terrorism rather than questioning it is evident in very many cases. For example, when the threat level is increased by security forces, the media gives it a lot of attention, on the other hand, when its lowered, the media gives it very little attention, if any at all (Elson & Nacos,2007) . According to Muella a cynical aphorism within the media is "If it bleeds, it leads therefore fit to print." (Muella, 2008) This results to an overrepresentation of scaring, "bleeding" headlines in the media. Terrorism is one of the major themes which fit this description very well. While I do not imply that the media networks favor political violence it's however true that terrorist activity provide what the modern media crave most. This desire for human interest stories as well as drama tends to lead to over-coverage of terrorist activities; for example in the early eighties, American media such as CBS, ABC, and NBC broadcasted more terrorism linked stories than stories related to unemployment, crime and poverty combined. (Nacos, 2000)
An overemphasis on particular aspects of terrorism such as the sensational aspects tends to create an unbalanced picture of terrorism. During September eleventh terrorist attacks, the media broadcasted shocking footage which was too surreal to even be appropriate for a movie. Unfortunately, it's not just the media who want high viewer rating but terrorist do too.
Even though a link between media focus on terrorism and the treat perception within the public has not been fully proven, it's highly probable that the government is influenced by terrorism reports in the media; because the ultimate objective of terrorism is political change, it can be concluded that terrorism related broadcasts on policy can become a dangerous phenomenon. A widely known media theory is the "CNN effect". It's described as the global mass media ability to affect the conduct of foreign policy as well as diplomacy. It implies the loss of independent thinking in policy making by decision makers due to the immediacy and power of media reports (Owen, 2009). Stephen Livingstone distinguishes three characteristics of CNN effect. The first aspect entails "a policy setting agent", the second aspect is "a hindrance to the attainment of desired objectives." and finally, "acceleration of policy decision making". (Livingstone, 2006, p 84) The policy setting part often rearranges the government foreign policy priorities e.g. when an American soldier was murdered and dragged in the streets of Somalia, the media coverage successfully mounted pressure on the government to withdraw from that country. (Hoffman, 2006)
The "hindrance to the attainment of desired objectives" means that media coverage leads to the loss of morale due to the tendency for live coverage to create threats to security operations. For example, during the hijacking of Kuwait airliner, international media prevented security forces from carrying out rescue operations because such an operation could be broadcasted immediately and alert the hijackers (Wilson, 2008). Many other rescue operations have gone wrong due to media coverage especially in the war in Afghanistan. The "accelerant effect" is the last aspect of the CNN effect. This effect reduces the reaction time of the authorities such that they have no time for deliberation and consultations because they are pressured by the media to react soon. This increases the chances of sloppy and hasty decision making (Livingstone, 2006).
In fact, high ranking officials and politicians themselves have openly stated that they are influenced by the media. For example, in the 1980's the Deputy secretary of defense said that the media was one of the key source of intelligence. It is therefore likely that politicians use media coverage of terrorism as a policy making foundation. It's worth noting that how the government and public opinion is influenced by the media is not always a one way street. Terrorism reports created by the media are used by the government to propagate, explain and enhance the governments counter terrorism efforts. E.g. the Bush administration made a lot of efforts to link 9/11 attacks to Iraq, before the invasion. An important part of the Bush strategy was to use the media to explain why the invasion was necessary.
The media coverage on terrorism and war will continue to increase however a thorough media policy created by the government is a vital part of counterterrorism strategy as well as ensuring the public is fully informed. In addition, the mass media seems to be entangled in the middle by all the agents involved in terrorism and warfare and attempts to persuade the media to report or behave in a particular manner in order to influence public opinion will persist.
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