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Terrorism And Media And Difficult Questions: The Trap Of Exaggerating Or Sensationalizing

18 April 2013

By Osman Mirghani

Amid the feverish race between traditional media and modern digital media—particularly social networking websites—numerous mistakes were committed while covering the Boston Marathon bombings and while in pursuit of the proverbial journalistic scoop. Accusations were made without legitimate evidence and before the sequence of events could be clarified. Even the police had to correct or modify some of its news, after hastily posting any developments on Twitter. Live feeds from different television channels were dispatching every single detail, relevant or not, and social networking websites were posting information without scrutiny or examination.

Less than twenty-four hours after the bombings, certain websites exposed the name of a suspect, a university graduate, as other news outlets circulated these claims and even published his photo. Later on, however, the news item proved to be incorrect. Some websites also claimed that the police had detained a Saudi Arabian national, information that was later refuted.

In the race to offer news analysis, experts familiar with the situation appeared on some television channels while others invited figures who based their comments on Wikipedia posts and superficial knowledge. Simultaneously, the numerous TV cameras set up at the scene of the crime did not have anything new to broadcast, prompting the networks to rebroadcast old footage.

Within the context of this race for exposure, several media outlets described the Boston bombing as the worst incident to have taken place in American since the 9/11 attacks. Statements such as this seem somewhat exaggerated, considering the obvious disparity between the two occurrences in terms of magnitude, the number of victims, and the strategy of destruction. Why should the Boston bombing be considered the most vicious terrorist attack since 9/11, in comparison, for example, to the attack carried out by Major Nidal Hassan in 2009 killing 13 people at the Fort Hood Base in Texas ? Is the distinction between the two based on the use of gunfire in Texas versus a bomb in Boston? Or is it based on the fact that Nidal Hassan targeted his military colleagues, whereas brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev targeted civilians?

The exaggerated coverage of the Boston attack took place in the midst of a feverish rivalry between different media outlets and television networks—a rivalry that only worsened when social networking came into the picture. All this contributed to intensifying the distressing climate that completely crippled life in the city.

This prompted questions regarding the manner in which this event was covered by the media. Many media outlets favored speed over accuracy and dispatched news without waiting for confirmation from police or the authorities in order to keep up with social media. These social networking websites also circulated numerous rumors, some of which contained exaggerated and inaccurate information. At least in the case of other media outlets, especially television networks, the facts where later corrected or amended if proven inaccurate.

The extensive days-long coverage of the Boston bombings received more attention than other terrorist attacks in other parts of the world or non-terrorist incidents that had a higher death toll. This was made apparent when Obama had to directly address the families of the victims of the Texas fertilizer plant blast stating, "You are not alone, you are not forgotten."

Based on this, the Boston Marathon bombing did not only put terrorism in the limelight once again, but it also put the media to the test and renewed discussions about its role in presenting information and analysis versus falling into the trap of coverage based on what is termed "reality television." This method includes a cameraman dispatching every singly detail of a particular scene regardless of whether it is significant or not.

Everybody agrees that the media is fascinated by terrorism and terrorists purposely carry out operations to draw attention to their acts.

This was explained by Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's then second-in-command, who stated that the media is half the battle. However, it is also true that the massive coverage given to terrorist crimes is presenting a moral quandary since the media, though unintentionally at times, is offering these terrorist the attention they seek. It is true that the media is not responsible for any terrorist phenomenon, nor does it initiate such acts, but it falls victim to these terrorists when it allows their acts to psychologically affect viewers at home.

The issue is not that simple because it is the nature of the media to inform the public of what is happening and it cannot abstain from doing this. On the contrary, viewers encourage media outlets to expand their coverage. Also, terrorism is a complex subject and does not rely solely on media coverage; if the media were to disappear, it would not necessary follow that so would terrorism. Combating terrorism requires security and political efforts to redress the grievances that may lead to extremism, and hence, terrorism.

The medias role in this is to dispatch news and information, and present analyses that help the public understand and answer specific questions. The difficulty lies in the mechanism by which to do this and in making sure not to fall into the trap of exaggerating or sensationalizing a certain incident, to prohibit terrorists from stealing the limelight.

 

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