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.”
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.