Media and Terrorism

Authored by: Robert A. Saunders

The Routledge History of Terrorism

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415535779
eBook ISBN: 9781315719061
Adobe ISBN: 9781317514879


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At its core, terrorism is political theater intended to convey a series of messages via symbolic acts of death and destruction. Prior to the advent of mass media (books, newspapers, radio, television, Internet, etc.), the effective reach of terrorists, whether state or non-state actors, remained comparatively weak, typically dependent on word of mouth, rumor, and intrigue. However, beginning with the introduction of the steam-powered rotary printing press in the mid-nineteenth century, the ability of political actors to inspire terror expanded exponentially. In our current era of globally linked networks of information and communications technologies (ICTs), terrorist organizations now enjoy the ability to broadcast their propaganda around the world at little to no cost, while also simultaneously benefiting from the deterritorialized nature of the Internet, which provides diverse mechanisms for recruitment, fund-raising, and surreptitious communication. Recognizing the historical import of such a transformation, this chapter presents a tripartite analysis of the relationship between media and terrorism, focusing on the “mediatization” of terrorism, or how the media coverage of terrorism facilitates and conditions human understanding and behavior. 1 Put more simply, this chapter investigates how the media make terrorism “real.” The initial section explores the role of mass media as a tool of terrorists for the purposes of publicity, intimidation, propaganda, recruitment, fund-raising, communication, and, most importantly, legitimacy. In the second section, the focus is on governmental responses to mediatized terror, including censorship, counter-messaging, and public diplomacy, as well as media-based manipulation of the terrorist threat for political purposes. The final section interrogates political violence (both historical and fictional acts of terror) as a source of entertainment and popular culture, examining the role of cultural producers in shaping attitudes towards terrorism and counter-terrorism; the role of popular media in predicting and even shaping terrorist plots is also discussed. This exploration of the actual and symbolic relationships between various forms of mass media and terrorism, and particularly how terrorism has been facilitated by the media as well as transformed by it over time, aims to provide both an explanation of and a rejoinder to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s oft-echoed assertion that “publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.”

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