After any form of terrorist attack, what do you do? Chances are that you will turn on the TV or turn to the Internet, where you will undoubtedly find a stream of videos and news articles about the incident. Inevitably, however, the media coverage does not stop here. In the days following an attack you will learn the excruciating details, see the same images played over and over again and hear the same sensationalised speculation over what had happened, why it happened and, above all, when it might happen next. It is not only unavoidable but it is also impossible to resist. Naturally you will want to be informed about potential threats to your safety. But what if rather than keeping us safer, this is actually having the opposite effect?
It is important to remember that acts of terrorism are neither a new phenomenon, nor a common one. The Telegraph’s reports indeed show us that terrorism is killing far fewer people in the UK now than it was in the 1980’s. The Global Terrorism Database shows that between 2000 and 2017, 126 people have been killed in the UK in terrorist attacks. This compares, however, “to 1,094 deaths in the 15-year period before that, between 1985 and 1999, and a further 2,211 between 1970 and 1984”. The chances of you or someone you know dying as a result of terrorism is virtually zero.
And yet, terrorism seems to be at the forefront of all media and, as a result, we see a society that is convinced that terrorism is the greatest threat to their daily lives. The way international media responds to atrocities is inadvertently contributing to the tense climate - a fact echoed in a a survey conducted by Gallup which informs, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the number of Americans worried about becoming a terrorism victim has drastically increased after 9/11. But isn’t this to be expected when every time you turn on the news you hear an array of explosive rhetoric, over-blown coverage and stigmatisation of minority groups?
This is not to say, however, that the relationship between media and terrorism is without merit. News coverage is crucial in providing verifiable information and, in societies where the tense environment is that of a crisis, the media have become all the more important. Social media has the ability to help people feel more connected to their community, as seen by the solidarity shown after the Manchester attack. In fact, The Guardian reports that in the space of 24 hours after the attack, 307,900 tweets were posted with the hashtag #ManchesterAttack - and this was just one of the many hashtags being used on the platform. However, this is not to say social media consistently brings such unity and support.
At its worst, the relationship between the media and terrorism is a perversely symbiotic one - a fact never more obvious than with the increasing coverage of violence devised by terrorist groups, using international media as a global platform to publicise their agenda and create panic - but not simply for the sake of terror. Their objective is to divide society, create discord and provoke discrimination - all whilst attracting new members. The round the clock coverage on the war on terror is almost unavoidable and the endless speculation around what has happened and, more frighteningly, what will happen is inescapable. Yet, what is potentially more toxic is the demand for information that has never been greater, fuelling the finger pointing in the immediate confusion after an attack that gains all the attention.
After any attack, near or far, news networks turn into 24-hour terror networks. Little do we really know how dangerous this all really is.