Kerry’s offhand remark was made during a visit to Bangladesh last week, prompting immediate criticism and even subsequent clarification from State Department spokesperson John Kirby.
The secretary of state’s suggestion that simply ignoring terrorism might help it go away and that an ignorant public is somehow desirable is ludicrous – but maybe it just came out wrong.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on that. Let’s assume what Kerry meant to say is that if the media didn’t make ‘insta-celebrities’ out of terrorists and play wall-to-wall coverage of major terrorist events, it would inspire fewer copycats and lone wolf attackers of the kind we’ve seen in recent months. If that’s what Kerry meant to say, he’d have a fairly reasonable point.
Ignorance isn’t a solution
Undoubtedly, terrorist groups crave attention and notoriety. They rely on the coverage they receive to sow fear and recruit for their cause. Recall the last time you were watching the news after a terrorist attack. In the heat of the moment, the media response is panicked and confused. False information and conflicting reports are rife. The few available clips are played over and over. Experts are immediately called on to decipher the motives of the ‘mastermind’ who could do such a thing. Wall-to-wall coverage, in that sense, is like one big free advertising campaign for the perpetrators. The networks win because you’re glued to the screen, and the terrorists win for the same reason.
The media, driven by ratings, are in a bit of a bind here. It’s their duty to report on events which are believed to be in the public interest. Terrorist attacks no doubt fall into that category. But there’s no hard and fast proof that watching a successful terrorist attack on TV makes someone want to be a terrorist — and even if there were, is less coverage really a solution? Just because certain information might make us afraid — or might inspire something worse — is ignorance really the answer?
Kerry’s comment assumes that media coverage and notoriety is the only (or at least overriding) motivation for would-be terrorists to “go out and kill some people.” That assumption is wrong. Terrorism experts and psychologists have painted a far more complex picture of the reasons people join terrorist groups or are drawn to extremist ideologies. So, even if Kerry was trying to make a legitimate point about his distaste for the particular way in which the media cover terrorism, he is still 100 percent wrong to ever have suggested that the public would be better served by not knowing “what’s going on.”
Then there is the bias factor. Terrorist attacks in non-Western locations aren’t given nearly as much coverage as those in cities such as Paris or Brussels. To an extent, this is just human nature. Regrettable as it is, we identify more with people who look like us. We’re more likely to fix our eyes on the screen after an attack in France than an attack in, say, Pakistan or India. Are we ‘better off’ because we aren’t fed a constant stream of information about attacks that are seen as less relevant to us? Or does it just make us self-involved and uninformed? It’s easier to argue the latter.
Shaping our reality
There are no easy answers for broadcast journalists when deciphering just how much coverage to dedicate to terrorist attacks. But let’s not give them too much sympathy. Going overboard from time to time with excessive coverage of terrorism isn’t their greatest sin.
The power of the media is immense. Journalists shape our reality with the narratives they propel. To that end, there is something they could very easily do that would genuinely and immediately serve the public interest: They could be honest about the origins of terrorism and the role their own governments play in feeding it.
Instead of breaking down in tears from their anchor desks while telling only half the story, they could start to actually provide their viewers with some much-needed context. Proper evaluation of Western foreign policy and its effect on fueling the rise of Islamic extremism would be a good start. Critical analysis of the practice of overthrowing Middle Eastern governments using jihadist proxies would be great, too. Explaining that terrorism is often fueled by genuine grievances in no way excuses or justifies those who engage in it, but does provide context for the viewing public that is mostly lacking from mainstream media.
What created terrorists wasn't the media but arming jihadists from Libya to Syria. pic.twitter.com/T5x5EtKDw5— Max Abrahms (@MaxAbrahms) August 30, 2016
Contrary to Kerry’s suggestion, people don’t usually just “decide one day” they’re going to go out and become a terrorist for no reason. This kind of obfuscation is understandable from a US government official, but less understandable from the journalists whose job it is to hold them accountable.
There is hope, however, that the media will be able to manage it if they try really hard. You see, rather mystifyingly, they are all too happy to provide ample context when the target of a terrorist attack is a ‘rival’ nation. Take the bombing of a passenger jet full of Russians last winter. Journalists were all too keen to make viewers aware that this was blowback from the Russian military engagement in Syria. They stopped just shy of actually running an on-screen banner that said, “the Russians brought it on themselves!” But somehow, blowback from Western military interventions simply doesn’t exist. We, of course, never bring it on ourselves — and if you say we do, you’ll find David Cameron calling you a disgusting “terrorist sympathizer.”
Until the media provide the full context for terrorism and explains how it is fueled time and again by the hideousness of Western policies, there will be no change, because the public will never be incensed enough to demand better of the people for whom they vote. If that happens, then yes, the media will truly have done us a service.
But until then, we can all keep changing our Facebook profile pictures in solidarity with victims while we wait for the problem to miraculously disappear.