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Terrorism in the Popular and Elite Press

Terrorism in the Popular and Elite Press
17th May 2010 ICSR Team
In FREErad!cals

Those with institutional journal access should check out the new issue of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, particularly an article by Na’ama Nagar of the State University of New York.
In Who is Afraid of the T-Word? Labeling Terror in the Media Coverage of Political Violence Before and After 9/11, Nagar suggests that we should be cautious when thinking about one particular aspect of the relationship between media and terrorism:

Several studies conducted after 9/11 found that American journalists have largely embraced the government’s official frame of the ‘War on Terror’.  Drawing from the claim of an ideological bond, this study investigates how American news media covered politically violent organizations that are not linked to Al Qaeda or the events of 9/11.  More specifically, the article examines whether the media’s inconsistent use of the word ‘terror’ changed as a consequence of 9/11 by comparing the coverage of these organizations before and after 9/11.  A quantitative content analysis of American media indicates that overall the coverage of political violence did not change after 9/11.  Moreover, journalists remained vigilant about using the word ‘terror’ when covering politically violent organization.

This is an interesting conclusion, given that it is often assumed―and I have fallen prey to this myself―that the press have actually been quite irresponsible at times in their representations of both ‘terrorism’, and ‘political violence as terrorism’, regardless of the actual tactics or strategies of the objects of their journalistic gaze.
Nagar concludes that the news media are actually ‘rather cautious’ when investigating political violence, and suggests why this might be so:

First, the news media may strive for objectivity and balance, which would be called into question by the use of the t-word since it implies choosing a side.  The fact that the t-word is often put in quotation marks seems to support this interpretation.  Second, as noted by [Brigitte] Nacos, news organizations may wish to maintain access to politically violent groups, which use of the t-word might jeopardize.

If correct―and I have no reason to doubt Nagar’s analysis―this means that the journalistic ethos is alive and well and, I would suggest, actively resisting the reproduction of ‘war on terror’ discourse.  However, Nagar cautions that the study only analyses the ‘elite press’, what we in the UK would call ‘broadsheets’.  As Nagar states, ‘Future research might want to analyze popular [tabloid / red-top] newspapers, which could be more likely to adopt the official language’.  This would seem―intuitively, at least―to be a sensible suggestion.
In 1984, at a heavyweight Harper’s Magazine discussion on terrorism and the media, John O’Sullivan of the Daily Telegraph said:

The assumption of the popular press is that terrorists are important for what they do.  The assumption of the quality press is that terrorists are important for what they say.  I suggest that the first assumption is much more sensible.

That’s quite a striking differentiation, which could easily form the basis for about five doctorates, so I won’t go into it here, but it does suggest that, long before 9/11, there was marked distinction between how terrorism was reported and represented in the two principal genres of mainstream printed news.
Nagar examines how real, actual organisations engaging in political violence are referred in the press―Lord’s Resistance Army, FARC, ETA, etc.  There’s probably a bunch of studies out there looking at how ‘terrorism’ is used as a frame for people, events and processes that have nothing to do with terrorism-as-political-violence.  To me, this is the more insidious discourse and I suspect―again, just a hunch―that this is more common in the popular press than the broadsheets.

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