Media Coverage Fuels Terrorism

Richard Morin reports on an a recent study showing that media coverage of terrorism fuels more terrorism and vice-versa.

More ink equals more blood, claim two economists who say that newspaper coverage of terrorist incidents leads directly to more attacks. It’s a macabre example of win-win in what economists call a “common-interest game,” say Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich and Dominic Rohner of Cambridge University. “Both the media and terrorists benefit from terrorist incidents,” their study contends. Terrorists get free publicity for themselves and their cause. The media, meanwhile, make money “as reports of terror attacks increase newspaper sales and the number of television viewers.”

A London tabloid proclaiming 'Carnage' about attacks on British trains is snapped up by commuters. 'Both the media and terrorists benefit from terrorist incidents,' concludes a recent study. The terrorists get publicity and the media gain circulation and profits. Photo Credit: By Matt Dunham -- Associated Press The researchers counted direct references to terrorism between 1998 and 2005 in the New York Times and Neue Zuercher Zeitung, a respected Swiss newspaper. They also collected data on terrorist attacks around the world during that period. Using a statistical procedure called the Granger Causality Test, they attempted to determine whether more coverage directly led to more attacks. The results, they said, were unequivocal: Coverage caused more attacks, and attacks caused more coverage — a mutually beneficial spiral of death that they say has increased because of a heightened interest in terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

One partial solution: Deny groups publicity by not publicly naming the attackers, Frey said. But won’t they become known anyway through informal channels such as the Internet? Not necessarily, Frey said. “Many experiences show us that in virtually all cases several groups claimed responsibility for a particular terrorist act. I would like the same rule that obtains within a country: Nobody can be called a criminal — in our case a terrorist — if this has not been established by a court of law.”

While I’ve never heard of Rohner, I’m quite familiar with Frey’s work in political economy; he’s highly regarded. The Granger Causality Test is well outside the scope of my methodological expertise but its creator won a Nobel Prize, which leads me to think there’s something to it.

This is a case where sophisticated research produces results that match up with our intuition. It’s no secret that media coverage is a prime motivation of terrorists, if not the primary motivation at the tactical level. It’s hard to sow terror if the results of one’s carnage are only known by eyewitnesses. Nor is it surprising that, as terrorist strikes increase, coverage goes up.

Unfortunately, Frey’s solution is a non-starter. Even aside from 1st Amendment concerns, a ban on calling terrorists “terrorists”–which many media outlets have already self-imposed–would do nothing to forestall coverage of terrorist activity. It’s the carnage and ensuing terror, not the label “terrorist,” that the perpetrators are after.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I thought the idea of just using a generic “terrorist” label, instead of identifying which group was claiming responsibility, had some real merit though.

    Make all of these acts seemingly anonymous and you’re making the bag guys do their own PR work. That means they have to be out there communicating more and, consequently, more vulnerable to tracking down.

  2. The solution is not government censorship (talk about your unintended consequences). The answer is for the media to be as cognizant of being manipulated by terrorists as they are of playing to racial stereotypes (when is the last time you read “the alleged criminal was described as a large, black male”), manipulation by those with a vested interest (politicians, bureaucrats, business, etc) or anyone else who seeks to make the press it’s useful idiots. The short term gain of some sales increase by more sensationalist coverage is most likely lost by the long term loss of sales by those who see more sympathy with those causing the terror than with those trying to stop it.

  3. James Joyner says:

    JB: That makes some sense, although it’s unenforcable. The names are virtually meaningless, though, for the jihadi groups. Indeed, the myriad groups chopping people’s heads off in Iraq rather run together in my head.

  4. Herb says:

    I don’t think the media gives a tinkers damn about who or how many people are killed as long as they get their story or make a headline.

    The real question is:

    How much blood will satisfy the blood thirsty reporters before they stop their promotion of the terrorist bombings, beheadings, and shootings ?

    The second question is:

    How much blood is already on the hands of those who insist on reporting the slaughter of our troops and the innocents ?

  5. RA says:

    People who cause an increase of terrorism against Americans (ACLU, Democrats, the MSM) are traitors. Its time we start shouting this at those who are culpable.

  6. G A Phillips says:

    RA, just what I was thinking, I think the liberals are the greater enemy and I would mark down 3/4 of our war dead to the aid and comfort they give to the terrorists.

  7. James,

    I’m familiar with Granger Causality and it doesn’t prove actual causality. GC is a time series technique used in forecasting that determines if, say, newspaper sales over time are correlated with terrorism over time, plus a lagged terrorism variable, and possibly a second lag on the terrorism variable.

    If the lagged terrorism variables pass their t-tests, then terrorism is said to Granger Cause newspaper sales.

    In short, the statement they made is too strong.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Robert: That sounds reasonable enough. Indeed, it’s probably all we can hope for from social science. My main concern would be whether other variables are factored into the equation.

  9. DL says:

    See if I have it right. We get our panties in a wad now if some terrorist is called a terrorist? Just a while back the same folks were ranting because they weren’t being called terrorists -just insurgents.

    I understand the thinking – “Don’t glorify their heinous acts by giving them the success they want.” What if their religious motives were challenged each time they were shown to be the godless destroyers of innocent life that they are.

    What if a picture of Mohhammed were to be juxtaposed next to the bloody remains of an innocent child with the question-Did Mohammed really want this? overlaid. They might not seek such publicity.

  10. Indeed, it�s probably all we can hope for from social science.


    I think that statement’s exactly right. If this weren’t a one-off study, it would provide the groundwork for getting closer to actual causality. As close as we can, anyway.