Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

"The right way to cover a 'threat,'" explans Johnson, "has as much to do with quality as quantity. Is it covered as a news item, or is it sexed up and packaged just how ISIS would want?" (Image: Fox News Screengrab)

Once Again, Media Terrorize the Public for the Terrorists

Another devastating terror spectacle and another media panic playing right into the script: spreading fear and sowing Islamophobia. Better writers than I have documented the latter, but not as much attention has been paid to the former—how in the wake of the Paris attacks 10 days ago, much of the media have needlessly stoked fears and acted, entirely predictably, as the PR wing for terrorists.

Let’s take a look at one of the more entirely pointless and trolly non-stories from last week:

Islamic State Releases Video Threatening Attack on New York City – USA Today

ISIS Threatens Paris, Rome, US in New Video – Daily Dot

New ISIS Video Threatens France, Italy, US – CNN

Do media have an obligation to cover terrorism? Of course. Is there any rule of journalism that says they have to jump in panic every time some anonymous ISIS account tweets out a spooky video? No.

The right way to cover a “threat,” as I noted last May, has as much to do with quality as quantity. Is it covered as a news item, or is it sexed up and packaged just how ISIS would want? Take, for example, the most cynical of these reports, from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which not only promotes the highlights of the “ISIS threat to New York” propaganda clip, but actually embeds the entire video unedited:

ISIS Threatens NYC in New Propaganda Video

Murdoch’s other troll factory, Fox News (11/17/15), even interviewed ex-spook Morten Storm (yes, that’s his real name) about the ISIS threat, where he says, in no uncertain terms, that they will strike within two weeks.

This type of terror speculation has absolutely no news value. Zero. None. Even if it were true—that ISIS was going to attack us within two weeks—what is the average person supposed to do with this information? As with FBI warnings and the subsequent NatSec fear-mongering, it’s never made clear what one is supposed to do in response to unspecified threats other than curl up in a fetal position and watch more Fox News.

Terrorism—to the extent the term is useful—is a fundamentally postmodern crime. It requires two parties for it to be effective: the violent actor and the media. As I’ve mention here at FAIR before, blowing up a market 1,000 years ago, for example, before mass communication, would have been entirely pointless. To properly terrorize a population, the population must be aware of the threat, and to be aware of the threat relatively quickly, mass communication is required for economy of scale to be achieved.

Does this mean the media should not cover acts or threats of terror at all? No, of course not; this would be a dereliction of duty and infantilizing. What it does mean is that when covering terrorism as such, a distinction between terror and meta-terror (i.e., terror caused by terror coverage) is an important part of journalistic discretion.

Unfortunately, as we saw after 9/11, many news outlets have failed to make this distinction, aiming instead for non-stop panic—even when the “threats” proposed are thin and designed to elicit just such a reaction. By amplifying every idle threat, the media have once again become ISIS’s defacto PR wing, in a fashion that’s as journalistically sloppy as it is depressingly predictable.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a New York-based  journalist, a contributing analyst for FAIR.org, and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

ACLU Demands 'Truly Systemic Overhaul' of US Civilian Harm Policies

"While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it's unclear that this directive will be enough," says director of the legal group's National Security Project.

Jessica Corbett ·


'This Is Not Over': Alaska Supreme Court Rejects Youth Climate Case

"With the state continuing to undermine their health, safety, and futures," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel, "we will evaluate our next steps and will continue to fight for climate justice."

Jessica Corbett ·


Analysis Finds 'Staggering' Rise in Voter Suppression After GOP Restrictions in Georgia

"This is why we are fighting this new law in court," said one voting rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Egregious': Pennsylvania Court Strikes Down Mail-In Voting Law

The ruling was stayed pending an appeal to the state's Supreme Court and as one voting advocate put it: "The fight's not over yet, folks."

Julia Conley ·


Big Win for Open Internet as Court Upholds California Net Neutrality Law

One legal advocate called the Ninth Circuit's opinion "a great decision and a major victory for internet users in California and nationwide."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo