Search continues for link between terrorism and publicity
In the last 10 days, international terrorism has once again clambered into the news: On Sept. 6 came word of both the Pan Am hijacking in Karachi and the massacre in an Istanbul synagogue.
On Sept. 8 a powerful car bomb in Cologne wrecked the fa,cade of West Germany's counterintelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
In Paris the next day, a bomb devastated the post office at City Hall, while in a separate incident Kurdish rebels took over the offices of Iraqi Airlines and held hostages for 90 minutes.
These incidents make it clear that even if the American bombing of Libya last April 15 gave pause to terrorists, the lull is over. The threat is still very much with us. Solutions are still difficult to come by. Frustration is still a dominant emotion.
And nowhere is that frustration more pointedly expressed than in the response of government officials and private citizens to the news media. When these events are reported, the old concerns arise about the relation of the news media to terrorism. Reduced to their simplest forms and ranged along a scale, these concerns take three different forms.
At one end of the scale are those who condemn the news media. To them, the media act as a conduit for a contagion, abetting terrorism by spreading the terrorists' most important product -- fear -- to the hearts and minds of the world.
Occupying a middle ground are those who assert that the media simply report the news whenever and however it occurs. They point out that the alternative -- imposing censorship -- would be devastating to democracy as well as a victory for the terrorists.
At the other end of the scale are those who argue that the media can actually help diffuse terrorism by providing a forum for terrorists. They argue that the ultimate goal of terrorism is to capture attention for a cause -- and that terrorists, cut off from the normal channels of publicity, resort to more and more spectacular events to assure themselves a hearing.
Intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively, each of these positions seems plausible. So it is sobering -- perhaps even astonishing -- to realize that there is, to date, no sound evidence whatever to support any of these views.
The first view -- that media are a source of contagion -- is the one most widely heard. But when Prof. Robert G. Picard, who heads the Terrorism and the News Media Project at Louisiana State University, made a careful study of scholarly thinking on the subject, he was rather taken aback.
``As one reviews the literature,'' he told a convention of journalism scholars in Oklahoma last month, ``it becomes shockingly clear that not a single study based on accepted social science research methods has established a cause-effect relationship between media coverage and the spread of terrorism.'' There is, he says in the paper prepared for that conference, ``no significant evidence that media act as a contagion.''
Professor Picard is quick to point out that his target is not the media but the research into the effects of the media. He is not saying that no link can ever be established, but simply that so far none has been. Nor is he defending the media. ``The fact that media cannot be shown to be the contagion of terrorism,'' he observes, ``does not exonerate it from excesses in coverage that have been shown to harm authorities' ability to cope with specific incidents of violence, have endangered the lives of victims and authorities, have been unduly sensational, and have spread fear among the public.'' Excesses, in other words, are always to be deplored. But that's not the same as saying that media coverage, by its very nature, is always a source of contagion.
With similar clarity, Picard also puts into perspective the concern at the other end of the scale -- that terrorists should be granted media access. He notes that, as a hypothesis, the idea ``has merit and deserves to be studied closely.'' He even makes the useful proposal that we learn to distinguish between interviews with terrorists held while an incident is under way -- which he condemns as providing ``a direct reward for the specific act of terrorism'' -- and interviews held at other times, which if handled well by tough-question ing journalists could become not propaganda platforms but serious efforts to explore the factors behind the violence. But here, too, he notes that ``there is little supporting evidence -- only intuition -- bolstering this `free expression as a means of controlling violence' theory.''
One can, of course, quarrel with Picard on two counts: that he puts too much trust in the sometimes fuzzy results of social science research, and that he may, by the age-old means of calling for yet another study, be postponing action where action is urgently needed. But his central warning deserves to be heeded: that we simply do not know much about the relationship between the news media and terrorism, and that we ought to find out.
An understanding of that relationship ``will make it less likely that governments will act precipitously to control media coverage,'' he concludes, and will provide journalists with ``a better understanding of terrorism that will leave them less open to manipulation and more aware of the consequences of their actions.''
A Monday column