Quid Pro Quo: The Mutualistic Relationship of Western News Corporations and Terrorists

by Clark Kent on April 25, 2017 - 2:33pm

On September 11th, 2001, the Western world declared war on terrorism. Ever since, we hear the phrase “war on terror” nightly on the news, or as a pop up notification on our phones. Why have we devoted so much time and resources to fighting this “war”? Is it because terrorist groups suddenly started murdering hundreds of innocent civilians? Terrorist organizations have been killing civilians for decades, so that cannot be the trigger. Or is it because they decided to attack Americans? Even though there were previous attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists on US soil, they were of a smaller scale. It was 9/11 that set off this multi-trillion dollar war against terrorism, but in effect, Muslims. The Western world was emotionally affected by the attack. Ever since, the news industry has devoted a disproportional amount of airtime and coverage to covering terrorist events that involve Westerners (Frey and Rohner 141). Not only do news outlets spend a skewed amount of resources covering these incidents, but they tend to glorify the victims and assume the perpetrator is Muslim. This undeniable bias is not only present in right-wing news outlets, but in many news outlets throughout the Western world. The framing and sensationalistic manner in which these stories are told lead to a society that has an unconscious predisposition to fear the “other” and facilitates a never-ending cycle of fear, hatred, and violence.

The media, especially the news media performs an essential role in a democratic society. It can help the public keep a government in check by providing it with important information. But the news industry like every other industry in our capitalistic society is driven by profit, and not necessarily by a need to inform the public. This opens the door to news stations and news corporations being controlled or influenced by investors, advertisers, and even having the inclination to report a story in a certain way. It is obvious that investors and advertisers could influence those who they pay, but why would a news station be inclined to set a particular frame on their report? It is difficult at first glance to see why.

Every American felt the impact of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as did most of the Western world. This gave every news outlet the opportunity to not simply to inform the public, but exploit this story in order to get the highest ratings. Every time a terrorist group strikes, it seems that news agencies around the world milk the story. A prime example is CNN’s coverage of the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 370. CNN covered the incident for over a month. In fact it has been heavily criticized for announcing breaking news when there was none, exploiting the victims’ families, and and giving the crash more attention than other, more recent, news items (Ross). Sixteen days after the crash of the plane, CNN released an article with the sole purpose of announcing a delay in the already futile search for remnants, and stating that families are distraught and saddened to learn that their loved ones are dead (Shoichet, Pearson, and Mobasherat). CNN showed little to no editorial restraint throughout their month long coverage of the crash, all the while receiving a 94% increase in primetime viewing (Ross). News corporations can and do exploit terrorist attacks in order to boost their ratings, and not necessarily provide the public with the essential information.

Since it is evident that news outlets are not averse to exploiting terrorist attacks, let’s look at how terrorist groups exploit the media. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda did not have the luxury of social media to proliferate their manifesto; they needed mainstream news to do that for them. Frey and Rohner show that the news media and terrorist groups are mutually beneficial (Frey and Rohner 142). By using a complex game theoretic model, they showed that there is a common-interest-game, meaning that the news corporations as well as the terrorists, profit from attacks. Which is logical seeing that terrorists need a method in which to propagate their ideology and agenda, and the news needs something to propagate.

It is important to establish that news outlets exploit terror incidents, but it is important to know how they do so. News agencies use sensationalism to trap their viewers into a state of craving more information on terrorism. Powell argues that news anchors and journalists employ a them-versus-us perspective when reporting on terrorist attacks (Powell 107). The “them” is then usually defined to be Muslim and to have links with extremist organizations (Powell 105), thus creating a society that feels it is at war with Islam alongside their fellow “compatriots”. This fabricated dichotomy between the West and the East, Christian and Muslim, and good and evil -all fabricated by the news industry - is what drives this billion dollar enterprise; that is the news agencies’ abetment of the war on terror.

The consequences of this dichotomy are felt in both the West and the East, creating a vicious cycle. Western society has been taught to live in exaggerated fear, while in the Middle East, terrorist groups are gaining support due to the artificial fear that Western news agencies are instilling in the public. The resulting fear in the West stimulates a support for more aggressive foreign policies. In fact, by showing gory and violent imagery of terror attacks, it has been shown that viewers are more likely to support hawkish policies (Gadarian). Furthermore, Frey and Rohner show that this type of news coverage not only inspires fear, but actually incites violence. They found that there is a 98.2 % chance that the New York Times coverage of terrorism incites fatalities. This creates an endless vicious and bloody cycle: fear breeds more aggressive policy, which leads to retaliation.

In 2015 alone, there were 28,328 deaths that were attributed to terrorism (Jones). It is a serious and widespread problem that attracts the attention of policy makers and the public, yet the subtleties behind a solution are complex and sophisticated. To put forward restrictions on how the media can report on such incidents, has the potential to set dangerous a precedent. Therefore, I will imply a utilitarian approach, as to come to the greatest possible outcome. News agencies should inform the public on the facts of the incident and avoid speculation, as in the case of terrorist attacks, it has been shown to ostracize religious groups. This in no way could lead to possible exploitation, as it forces reporters to remain honest and unbiased. I would also implore western governments to devote resources to educating their populace, which would give them the ability to question and scrutinize authority and the government. Lastly, Frey and Rohner show that the inefficient equilibrium is the result of a utility function that doesn’t incorporate the harm done to the population. This could be solved by imposing a fine on news outlets for disseminating presumptions that turn out to be false; a tax on bullshit. This would lead to a more understanding culture and a society that can come together as a whole in times of crisis and actually work through a solution without dissolving into warring factions.




Works Cited


Frey, Bruno S., and Dominic Rohner. "Blood and Ink! The Common-Interest-Game Between Terrorists and the Media." SSRN Electronic Journal (2007): 129-45. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Gadarian, Shana. "How sensationalist TV stories on terrorism make Americans more hawkish." The Washington Post. WP Company, 09 Oct. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Jones, Susan. "11,774 Terror Attacks Worldwide in 2015; 28,328 Deaths Due to Terror Attacks." CNS News. N.p., 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Powell, Kimberly A. "Framing Islam: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of Terrorism Since 9/11." Communication Studies 62.1 (2011): 90-112. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Ross, Mike. "CNN turns to sensationalism" BostonGlobe.com. Boston Globe, 01 May 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Shoichet, Catherine E., Michael Pearson, and Mitra Mobasherat. "Malaysia Flight 370: Lives 'lost'; weather causes search suspension." CNN. Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.