Thursday, June 15, 2006

Terrorism and Media Coverage Thereof: The Vicious Cycle

The WaPo's Richard Morin spotlights a new economic study offering "unequivocal" evidence that news coverage reinforces and promotes terrorism, while terrorism boosts the unit sales, ratings, and eyeballs upon which journalism bases its business. Comparing the number of articles about terrorism in the New York Times and the Swiss Neue Zuercher Zeitung between 1998 and 2005 to worldwide terror attacks during that same period, the authors concluded that the two phenomena both caused and resulted from each other. The terrorists get their message out to their adversaries, and the news industry profits—economists call this kind of alignment between agents with disparate interests a "common-interest game."

The results of this study certainly jibe with the instincts of anyone who's been paying attention since 9/11: obviously the very point of terrorism is to propagate terror throughout a given populace, and I'd bet that time-series data would show that the frequency of terror attacks in the 20th century increased as the mass media extended its reach around the globe. Still, it's difficult to blame journalists for doing their job, and the authors don't: one suggests keeping the identity of the attackers secret in news reports to deny them the publicity they so obviously desire. But even if a few countries could get laws or informal industry agreements to that effect into place, someone somewhere would let the cat out of the bag and onto the Internet, defeating the entire purpose. Besides, keeping secrets only increases the demand for the sequestered information—so the media's grand plan could actually attract more interest to terrorism than would have resulted under business as usual.

Those who advocate ignoring terrorism as a deterrent strategy have stumbled upon a good start, but they fail to take account of the lessons of 7/7: the famous British "stiff upper lip" may have helped the population cope with the tragedy, but it did little to prevent it. There's also the possibility that merely brushing off conventional terrorism may help push its purveyors toward ever-deadiler feats of villainy in the hopes of provoking the existential fear and curtailment of civil liberties that is their ultimate goal. Living without fear is important, but it can't stop terrorism by itself. Implementing effective anti-terror strategies will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century, but unfortunately we haven't found anything that really works yet—and until we do, it, like car wrecks and cancer, will continue to threaten our lives.