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"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.

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