By covering terrorist attacks in never-ending news cycles, journalists are playing into the terrorists’ strategy.
- By Najib SharifiA former journalist, Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul based think tank. He can be reached via email@example.com.
One early morning in the summer of 2013, six Taliban suicide bombers attacked the governor’s office in Panjshir province almost 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Kabul. In the ensuing hour-long battle, Afghan police lost one man and killed all six militants. Soon after the attack, the Taliban spokesman claimed they killed 50 Afghan and international troops and injured another 43.
The failure of the Taliban’s assault was apparent from the outset. They lost six of their men without scoring any battleground gains. They couldn’t overrun the compound nor did they manage to disrupt public order. They most likely knew the result in advance. But where they succeeded was the attack’s propaganda value. The Taliban captured headlines and showed that they could even penetrate Panjshir valley — the heartland of anti-Taliban resistance during the 1990s civil war and one of the most stable areas of Afghanistan today.
This was not the first or only attack of its kind. Just two weeks ago, six Taliban assailants attacked the parliament building resulting in the deaths of all six by security forces guarding the compound.
Over the past decade, most attacks by the Taliban and their associated terrorist allies have been orchestrated in pursuit of propaganda. They have carefully selected targets to garner maximum attention and airtime, which in turn spreads fear, undermines the government’s credibility, and gains them respect and even legitimacy in the eyes of potential sympathizers and supporters. More importantly, the news such attacks produces magnifies their capabilities — an important aspect of their propaganda strategy.
Media attention is one of the most important vehicles for terrorists to communicate with their audiences. It is free, it widely broadcasts their capabilities, and through media, they can easily gain recognition. It also forms an important platform for these groups to follow their political objectives. Without capturing airtime, the terrorist group would have no place in public or political debates. Airtime is oxygen for terrorists.
The irony is that many Afghan and international media, while understanding the propaganda value of terrorism, continue to broadcast those attacks expansively, in most cases, even giving priority to them.
During the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, for example, major U.S. and English news networks remained preoccupied with the attack for multiple days. And again the attack on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris captivated Western media on an unprecedented scale. Hasn’t it occurred to the media that such attention encourages more terrorism in the future? Don’t they understand that few things are as effective in magnifying the power of terrorists as dominating the headlines day after day?
They may understand it, however, the bitter truth is that the terrorists’ desire for coverage coincides with the economic needs of commercial media to “hype” terrorism. As the saying goes: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The more sensational the story, the more people will get attracted to it, driving up the outlets’ viewership and advertisements. But the danger is that such practice creates a symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorists.
Terrorists have been much more media savvy than their government enemies. Terrorist groups — whether it’s the Taliban, al Qaeda, or the Islamic State — recognize that the media is a fast paced industry where interest in stories is lost quickly. This spurs them on to even more novel and gruesome attacks in order to keep their presence in the media, and by extension, in the public debate. Terrorists are like any other organization; they are constantly updating their methods, creating new styles, keeping the public interested in their deeds. This has posed serious challenges for security forces and policymakers. With every new tactic, for example, the Afghan government must increase not only its security presence, but its imagination to anticipate what’s coming next.
The new tactics used at the Kabul Serena hotel attack in March 2014, the Kabul Intercontinental hotel attack in June 2011, and most recently the targeting of guests at the Park Palace Hotel in Kabul in May 2015 have all challenged the capacities of the Afghan intelligence and security apparatus. It is also not lost on the Taliban that their targets are hotels that are frequented by foreigners and political elites, typically newsworthy victims.
In light of this new environment, the media’s responsibility to separate news from cleverly choreographed propaganda has never been so great. As the nature of conflict changes from conventional warfare to more asymmetric conflicts fought between asymmetric forces, the media is more and more vulnerable to being used as a tool by the conflicting parties.
Therefore, now more than ever, the media must be judicious in filtering propaganda from actual news. And journalists need to have serious debates about how to cover terrorist activities without falling prey to the manipulation of terrorists. Of course, boycotting coverage of terrorist activities cannot be a solution. The media still has an obligation to inform the public but obsessing over the coverage at the expense of other news does not do the public any good.
To counteract this dangerous cycle, government spokespeople must always be available and accessible to the media so that an official version of events is broadcasted. It takes journalists hours to get the government’s statements after an attack. In today’s world of instant news, where the Taliban use cell phones, Twitter, and other social media to spread their messages instantly, the government is falling behind. The Taliban and other terrorist groups will always be on the winning side as long as the government and media fail to mitigate terrorists’ exploitation of the news cycle.
The slow decision-making processes on what to say following an attack and the hierarchical structures of communications departments within the government have been exploited by terrorists. No longer can the government afford to spend hours strategizing what, when, and how to feed information to the public. Only with a quick and robust presence in the media and proactive efforts to lead the narratives can the government effectively deprive terrorists of maintaining ascendancy in the information landscape.
So far the government is losing the battle over airtime, and journalists have not fully grasped how much terrorists benefit from exploiting their reporting. Journalists, who are at the forefront of today’s information warfare, must maintain impartiality and independence in the midst of competing and diverse narratives. They must also remember that serving the public interest is the ultimate goal of their daily work. Parity in their reporting has never been as vital as it is now.