On terrorism and the media

I was watching Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe on iPlayer the other day, wherein several very valid points were made. Basically, for anyone who hasn’t seen Newswipe before, it’s a programme that picks holes in various aspects of the media’s portrayal of events. Think of it like Harry Hill’s TV Burp, meets Have I Got News For You – and then make the content more serious, and the humour really dry.

Anyway, there was a bit on the programme regarding terrorism, and the differences of scale of some stories versus others. There was a very good bit featuring Dan Gardner (author of the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear – a book that, incidentally, I have read and would recommend) where he explained why some world events are focuses on more than others. I may come back to this, but if I don’t, I suggest you visit your local library/bookshop and get yourself a copy of Risk (or if its still on iPlayer, watch Newswipe).

But I digress. The point I wanted to focus on was made a bit later on in the segment, by US comic Doug Stanhope. While everyone else is quick to blame the media for the bias in terror stories – putting massive hype and emphasis on those that are closer to home than others, he suggested that the media are not actually at fault. When it boils down to it, the media companies are just that – they are companies, businesses. They exist to make a profit and pay their shareholders. I have made the point in an earlier post that it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether the public influences the media or vice-versa, but with this point of view it doesn’t really matter. The newspapers follow the stories that make the money. People buy the papers that claim the big hard-hitting stories (however improbable the slightest analysis renders them) because they want to feel involved. As Stanhope puts it, people are much more interested in the kind of story where Osama Bin Laden himself wants to blow up your personal Ford Focus, because that means that your life – although in mortal danger – at least means something in the grand scheme of terrorism. The truth of the matter is that actually, in this ‘grand scheme’, your life will amount to nothing. Statistically speaking, you will live to 70 – 80 years old, have 2 or 3 kids and maybe a dozen grandchildren. You’ll live in a semi-detached house and on the drive way will sit a silver Ford Focus that Osama couldn’t care less about. And when you think about it, that doesn’t sound too shabby – does it?

It’s an interesting point. I am guilty myself of blaming the media for the kinds of stories they report on. Don’t get me wrong however – I’m not absolving them completely. Earlier in the programme, Gardner talked about the various trends the media go through, and how they will only focus on stories that fit a certain template. As examples, he used older terrorism stories such as the 1995 Oklahoma Bombing. Such stories, whilst obviously tragic, failed to capture the international attention of other – arguably less severe – events. The attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 last year drew the global attention and held it for a vast amount of time. Even now, media and public alike have one eye fixed on Yemen, citing it as the latest breeding ground for terrorists. By comparison, the Oklahoma Bombing drew a small amount of media interest. (I’m not belittling the attack in anyway, I am merely pointing out that on an international scale, the Christmas Day plot held more people’s attention for longer). Perhaps this is due to advances in technology – people have a more ready access to international news now than they did 15 years ago. It could simply be that more people focused on Flight 253 because more people heard about it.

Gardner puts forward another theory however. The media – and thus the public – have a ‘template’ in their minds of what constitutes a terrorist. It’s arguably a prejudicial and racist view, but one that is held none the less. In short (if I understand Gardner’s view correctly), the Oklahoma Bombers, both being white Americans, don’t fit the template of a terrorist. The tragedy received news coverage, as it rightly should have, but failed to stick in the minds of those not directly affected because the perpetrators were seen as ‘one-off’. By contrast, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is more of a ‘match’ to this ‘template’, and so his (attempted) attack can be filed away into the pigeonhole labelled ‘terrorism’.

Once again, I have strayed viciously from my original intended piece, so I’ll round up with this, unintended conclusion:

It seems to my mind that there have evolved two ‘types’ of terrorism. Both are identical in nearly every way. They both aim to shock and distress people, and both do so usually by killing or injuring as many people as possible. They don’t even differ in the scale of the attacks. The difference between them lies in the media coverage they receive, and this in turn is dictated by whether or not they can be attributed – in any way, shape, or form – to al-Qaeda. It reminds me of a bit American comedian Rich Hall did a while ago, where he ridicules people for thinking that finding Bin Laden will be the solution to the world’s terrorism problems. It seems to me that, post 9/11, people are so focused on one aspect of global security (i.e. al-Qaeda and associated entities) that some of the other things are being forced out of the public interest. To be sure there are other things going on, and I am only aware of this because they gain media coverage. But I am left wondering that, with the majority of the world’s interest in global security focused in one place (and I use ‘place’ metaphorically, because of course terrorism doesn’t ‘live’ in any one area – one of the reasons it is so hard to combat), are we not at risk from some unforeseen and unchecked danger?

On that pessimistic end to a distractingly unstructured entry, I leave you.

Until next time.