Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit

Charles Townshend examines some significant questions concerning the UK and US media

June 18, 2009

The intimate link between terrorism and the media has been recognised (and usually deplored) for many years. Do the media make "free" societies more vulnerable to terror? Mrs Thatcher's notorious "broadcasting ban" in the 1980s was specifically designed to deny the Provisional IRA "the oxygen of publicity" - in the belief that publicity is not merely useful to terrorists but vital. So Susan Moeller is hardly the first to evaluate the news reporting of terror incidents, even though she sometimes gives the impression that she thinks she is. Nor are all her findings as novel as she implies.

"So," she proclaims at one point, "there are differences among newspapers." This non-revelation is presented as part of her discussion of a highly pertinent question - why some media do a "better job" than others in getting past the general acceptance of the interpretations put out by governments. It would certainly be valuable to explore systematically the decision-making processes of a wide range of news editors, but Moeller does no more than refer to one or two. Her answer to her own question is inconclusive.

Disappointingly for British readers perhaps - although she studies the British as well as the US media - she does not address the common belief that the "quality" British papers, and higher TV journalism such as Newsnight, are "better" in her terms than their American equivalents. When she is discussing the media's tendency to report few details of the victims of terror attacks, she concludes that "one can only assume that the reason why we don't get additional information is that, in the finite space of international news stories, the bean counters make the judgment that a name or two or 20 would use up valuable room ... ". From a professional researcher, we are entitled to expect more than this. Likewise, observing that pictures speak louder than words, she offers no clear explanation.

This is regrettable, because she certainly knows how to pose significant questions, and her analysis of many issues is thoughtful, sensitive and nuanced. She is properly troubled, for instance, by the false understanding of the world that the American public derives from its media. There is some worrying research that shows that most people have no interest at all in the provenance of such information, and - more worrying still - tend to believe the things they hear most frequently. Familiarity, as she notes, seems to breed not contempt but credulity.

She carefully explores the remarkable process by which, after the 2004 Madrid train bombing, newspapers - British as well as American - printed graphic verbal descriptions of the carnage, but tampered with the photographs to remove or disguise it. She gets close to the monstrous dilemma at the heart of the problem in her examination of reactions to the gruesome video of Daniel Pearl's execution at the hands of (as he claimed) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What was at stake as the Western media debated whether to show it, in whole or in part?

In fact there was no question anywhere in the West of showing, in the BBC's words, "executions or other scenes in which people are being killed". But CBS aired a 30-second extract from the video in which Pearl was made to declare that he was Jewish. Was this, as Pearl's family protested, "perpetuating propaganda and sensationalising tragedy"? Would anyone making available footage of actual beheadings effectively become accessory to the crime? Or would "protecting" the public from "the truth" be, as others argued, to "do them a huge disservice"?

Moeller does not propose a simple resolution of such excruciating dilemmas. This is forgivable, but it is a pity that, despite trailing it in her book's title, she does not really get to grips with the role of the profit motive in the whole process. The extent of its influence on editorial decisions is not measured.

Some of her recommendations for improving media performance sound a little like pious hopes - for instance, that all news stories should carry a much heftier element of conceptual precision and historical background. But she is on firm ground in espousing the concept of "media literacy" - the need for people to be much more educated about how the news stories they see are generated. Achieving this will not be easy - few will study in university centres of the kind she directs - but without it the functioning of the fourth estate will remain dangerously flawed.

Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit

By Susan D. Moeller

Wiley-Blackwell

248pp, £45.00 and £12.99

ISBN 9781405173667 and 73650

Published 5 December 2008

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