Mass Media and the “Crisis” of International Terrorism

Note: This paper was originally submitted on 13 Dec 1998 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for IR 301 (“International Politics”) at the Middle East Technical University.

What is the real crisis of international terrorism? According to the speakers at the 1979 Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism1 (and hundreds of politicians since then), the specter of international terrorism is rising over modern civilization like a black cloud, waging war against the modern, civilized, democratic world in an effort to wipe it off the planet. However, nearly twenty years later James Der Derian has argued that this is a misleading and dangerous misconception. He argues that although international terrorism does represent a crisis, it is not in terms of body counts or as a threat to the modern states system as politicians normally assert.2 Instead, he argues that the “spectacular, micro-cosmic simulation” that is international terrorism represents a legitimacy crisis within the international order.3 In other words, the media-generated spectacle of international terrorism distracts most of us, including politicians, from the increasing signs of international disorder that transcend what is normally considered to be terrorism.

In this essay I will explore and attempt to delineate the primary ways in which the mass media influence the public discourse and politics of international terrorism. By “mass media” I refer, unless otherwise stated, to the television, radio, and print media that provide the context for formation of mass public opinion in our age. I will argue that the main influence of the mass media in the public international political discourse on terrorism has been that of propaganda rather than objective information. As a propaganda tool, the mass media have been used quite effectively to create and maintain a pseudo-reality generally corresponding to the political interests of the most powerful states. Thus, exploration of the interaction between mass media, public opinion, and the politics of international terrorism is the purpose of this paper. I will not attempt to give a chronology or history of terrorism, since there are thousands of books, articles, and conferences devoted to the subject. Rather, I will attempt to challenge the dominant thinking regarding international terrorism by demonstrating that the common perception of it is too narrow or confused because of the influence of the media.

The relationship between domestic public opinion and the international political scene is dependent largely on how public opinion affects the overall foreign policy of a given state. In a study devoted primarily to the interaction between mass public opinion and a specific aspect of foreign policy (the public pronouncements of decision-makers), it was found that this relationship is threefold. In a democracy, public opinion operates as a resource in foreign policy execution, a source of foreign policy innovation, and a constraint on foreign policy innovation.4 These interrelated effects of public opinion on the foreign policy process obviously increase or decrease depending on how totalitarian the state regime is. One of the conclusions of this study, published in 1972, was that the foreign policy elites of a state often overestimate the rigidity of public opinion and their capacity to influence it.5 During the two and a half decades since this study, it has become even clearer that public opinion is definitely malleable, and that the agent of change in public opinion is usually the mass media. The key factor, then, is whether or not the state or other dominant interest groups control the media, and by extension public opinion, or if the media is truly “free”.

At issue in this paper, of course, is the central myth that the various elements of the mass media are objective and balanced in their presentation of the news.6 Chomsky points out that this myth is part of their propaganda function, and that if the media were really honest, they would state up front the position and interests that they represent, thus enabling the public to properly evaluate the information that they receive.7 Thus, Chomsky asserts that the media have achieved a magnificent coup de grace in that although they are generally perceived as adversarial, subversive, and undermining powerful institutions, they are in fact actually supportive of the major power interests and serve as a mouthpiece for the official ideology.8

Now that we have attempted to define the mass media and its general relationship to public opinion and foreign policy determinations, we must attempt to define the term “international terrorism”. The general concept or principle of terrorism is as old as human nature, as evidenced by Sun Tzu’s maxim two thousand five hundred years ago: “Kill one – frighten ten thousand”.9 In today’s age of instant global publicity, this could easily be translated to at least “kill one – frighten ten million”, if not more.

However, the word “terrorism” came into general use at the end of the 18th century to refer to the violent actions committed by governments in order to ensure the submission of their subjects.10 This definition obviously is taboo today, so Chomsky goes on to provide a general definition of terrorism as the “threat or use of violence to intimidate or coerce (generally for political ends), whether it is the wholesale terrorism of the Emperor or the retail terrorism of the thief”.11 Of course, his broadening of the definition of terrorism to include acts of violence by the Emperor (the United States) and his client states (not just communist or Islamic ones) goes against the modern media-mediated propaganda regarding terrorism, as the following definitions indicate.

In 1979, Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu defined the task of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism as no less than to “define the terrorist, this so-called revolutionary of our time, and throw light on his real aims”.12 With the lineup of speakers at this conference including such distinguished, generally conservative personages as Shimon Peres, then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Chaim Herzog, Jack Kemp, George Will, and George Bush, the resulting rhetoric regarding international terrorism was unsurprisingly a reiteration of the status quo viewpoint. The definitions or descriptions of terrorism proposed throughout this conference ranged from Paul Johnson’s assertion that “terrorism…is an international offensive – an open and declared war against civilization itself”13 to Lord Chalfont’s statement that “international terrorism is, indeed, at war with liberal democracy”14 to Mr. Netanyahu’s statement that terrorism is “violence systematically directed at innocent civilians for political ends”.15 In a recent statement issued by the Turkish Grand National Assembly regarding the controversy surrounding Italy’s refusal to extradite PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, it was asserted that “international terrorism, which is also defined as an undeclared World War III, has reached a point that….threatens democracy”.16

Due to the plurality of definitions of international terrorism, the net overall effect of the mass media regarding international terrorism consists of the creation of a pseudo-reality within which major international policy decisions regarding terrorism are made. James Der Derian asserts that definitions of terrorism are in fact the prime weapon in the arsenal of counter-terrorism, because they attempt to impose artificial order on the inherent unpredictability and incoherence of the real picture of international terrorism.17 But, because of this inherent chaos and incoherence of international terrorism and the lack of objectivity within the media, most definitions only confuse and muddy the picture, rather than clarifying it. In addition to the promotion of definitions, a variety of other effects of the mass media on the international terrorism discourse can be delineated.

A related effect of the mass media is in its creation of the modern spectacle of terrorism that the public endures. In this respect, the mass media is impartial in its treatment of terrorism. No matter whether the incident being reported is one committed against the state establishment or by the state, the depiction by the media is generally sensationalist and spectacular. The basic reason for this is painfully obvious. Violence sells.18 Spectacular depiction of violence sells newspapers and draws listeners and watchers like flies to a dead animal, which fills the moneybags of those who own the media.

The drastic effect of media overkill and sensational reporting of terrorist violence has an important corollary effect on the public mind. Norman Podhoretz noted at the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism in 1979 that “the publicity that has been accorded the terrorist groups has had the effect of habituating the public mind to the kind of action – the murders, the kidnappings, the hijackings – that once seemed so horrible as to be virtually unthinkable, so outrageous as to be almost beyond condemnation, so as to leave people literally speechless”.19 This habituating of the public mind to terrorist tactics helps to undermine the natural moral response to acts of brutality, cruelty, and violence. Of course, Podhoretz is referring to acts of terrorism committed against liberal democratic states, not to the often equally despicable acts of “retaliation” committed by these states.

An example of this often-used double standard is the attitude of the United States towards Libya during the heyday of Reagan’s presidency. Noam Chomsky points out that between 1980 and 1985 Amnesty International reports indicated that Libya had assassinated fourteen of its dissident citizens, thus earning the appellation “terrorist state”.20 Further disputes and unproved accusations against Libya by the United States were followed by several American attacks on Tripoli and the Gulf of Sidra, killing many innocent civilians. Because of Reagan’s rhetoric and effective use of the media, the American people were anesthetized to the realities of international terrorism, and generally did not even question Reagan’s highly aggressive foreign policy. U.S. actions toward Libya are even more striking when Libya’s fourteen atrocities during 1980-85 are compared to the more than 50,000 people killed in El Salvador during the same period by U.S.-supported security forces.21

One of the ways by which this habituating of the public mind occurs is through the widespread use of what Albert Bandura terms “euphemistic labeling” regarding terrorist acts.22 Euphemistic labeling masks reprehensible activities with an illusion of respectability, such as when “bombing (or missile) attacks” are reduced in the press to “clean, surgical strikes”, evoking the healing, restorative work of the hospital operating room, with related civilian casualties linguistically converted to mere “collateral damage”.23 Another example is the circuitous path around murder that the media traces, such as when counter-terrorist soldiers “waste” people or intelligence operatives “terminate (them) with extreme prejudice” instead of killing them like normal folks.24 Of course, equally dangerous is the oft-used equation “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” that morally relativizes the entire debate, rendering impossible the search for a solution to the problem.25 Although this equation is not universally true, it is also not universally false, as state officials try to make the public believe.

Another major influence of the media regarding terrorism is in its propaganda role for the state, especially regarding counter-terrorism measures. One of the general ways in which the media is effective in propaganda regarding terrorism is through what Bandura terms the principle of “advantageous comparison”.26 This is the simple principle that the event presented first colors the public perception of the second event (i.e., bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the resulting U.S. missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan). In this example, extensive and graphic media coverage of the bombed embassies provided the justification and public demand for a sufficiently severe U.S. response. Even though these missile strikes, which killed innocent civilians in both Sudan and Afghanistan, accomplished virtually nothing in the fight against international terrorism except exacerbation of the problem, mass public opinion in the United States did not challenge the State Department’s assertion that the strikes were necessary and effective.

The principle of advantageous comparison is further illustrated by the frequent references to historical events in order to justify acts of violence. For example, a former director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) effectively deflected questions about the morality and legality of CIA-directed covert operations designed to overthrow an authoritarian regime by explaining how French covert operations and military aid to the American revolutionaries greatly aided the overthrow of oppressive British rule.27 This line of reasoning justifies, at least to the CIA, its attempts to create modern democracies by highly controversial assistance to revolutionaries attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, advocates of revolutionary terrorism point out that the modern democracies of Britain, France, and the United States of America were born of violence against oppressive rule.28 Thus, one specific historical situation (the American Revolution) is used to justify revolutionary violence against a regime judged to be repressive and violent covert intervention of one state into another state’s domestic affairs for the purpose of aiding revolutionaries. This is a prime example of the double standard regarding terrorism that exists in today’s world.

What does this example of the American Revolution tell us regarding the media’s impact? First, it indicates the power of comparison and the ease of manipulation of history for one’s own ends. Because most people in today’s world form their opinion of international events, particularly terrorism, from media coverage, the media transforms from an objective transmitter of news to a polarizing propaganda machine for those who control it. If the media portrayal of international violence is in accordance with the state’s view, it will very easily become a tool of the state. If media coverage runs counter to the state view, the media will be ignored, disclaimed, harassed, accused of promoting and exacerbating terrorism, censored, or shut down/controlled, depending on the openness of the regime in question.

Because the media in today’s age is so pervasive and influential, it can serve as a propaganda tool for both anti-state terrorists and state terrorism. Anti-state terrorists need the mass media in order to intimidate the public and therefore influence their targets and to arouse sympathy for their causes.29 States, on the other hand, also need the mass media in order to discredit “terrorist” causes, promote the state’s version of reality, and to publicly provide a moral justification for the often reprehensible violence of counter-terrorist measures.30

This moral dilemma of counter-terrorist measures is a reality that too often is ignored by the media, especially in democratic societies that theoretically place high value on human life and freedom. The violence of counter-terrorist measures may cause the state to find itself in the predicament of violating the very values of its society that it is attempting to defend.31

Furthermore, extreme counter-terrorist measures (fighting terror with terror) can be worse than the original terrorism itself, lead to greater levels of terrorism, and often spawn new terrorists.32 In this respect, the words of former chief of Israeli military intelligence, General (ret.) Yehoshaphat Harkabi, carry significant weight: “To offer an honorable solution to the Palestinians respecting their right to self-determination: that is the solution of the problem of terrorism. When the swamp disappears, there will be no more mosquitoes.”33 Obviously, the idea of draining the swamp that gives rise to terrorism implies something other than, or in addition to, the standard military solution to terrorism. In this respect, the effect of media sensationalism, glorification of violence, and transmittal of official state propaganda is nothing short of disastrous.

An unwanted side effect of the previously discussed influences of the media portrayal of terrorism is the contagious nature of terrorist acts.34 During her discussion of why terrorists choose to practice terrorism, Martha Crenshaw points out that they can learn of each other’s experiences and experiments via the news media. In this sense, the media is doubly at fault. In the first place, ordinary citizens do not need to know the gruesome details and be subjected to round-the-clock coverage of terrorist incidents. We already know that mankind is capable of horrible actions, but unfortunately we also know that most people have a sick fascination with these acts. Secondly, in-depth coverage of terrorist incidents provides examples for would-be terrorists and may actually encourage them to act as well. In short, restricting or de-sensationalizing media coverage of terrorist acts would deprive terrorists of their essential audience and give leaders the privacy and breathing space necessary for an effective response.

In some cases, the media can even directly instigate terrorist acts or even wars, as the veteran Turkish journalist Varlık Özmenek asserts. Özmenek, the honorary chairman of the Contemporary Journalists Association (CGD) in Turkey, has initiated a series of actions against what he calls the “Terrorism of the Media”. 35 His initiative is particularly aimed at journalists who target individuals, instigate war, and ignore the general principles of journalism. As an example, at a recent press conference he cited the daily Hurriyet’s large headline of 1 November 1998 which read, “Look at the Maniac”, accompanied by a photograph of Deputy Chairman of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) Osman Baydemir.36 Özmenek then reminded listeners that IHD Chairman Akın Birdal was shot by men linked to a former state-employed terrorist after the same newspaper had accused him of having connections to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). He went on to declare that he “started these activities in order to establish a professional sensitivity against a media that is instigating war and targeting people and to gradually establish sanctions against such behavior”.37 Although his campaign is primarily directed toward the Turkish media, he has called for an international campaign, recognizing the international nature of this type of irresponsible and dangerous media coverage.

Another effect of the media on the international politics of terrorism is what Gary Sick refers to as the amplification and personalization of the terrorist crisis.38 He uses the specific example of international hostage incidents, where the media’s on-the-spot, minute-by-minute coverage makes the job of the politician very difficult as he attempts to deal with the situation. As the crisis unfolds, the media create a constant sense of immediacy and pressure, personalizing the victims with background family information and interviews, which increases the public sympathy and pressure on the government to “do something”. 39 In reality the best course in these situations is one of caution and patience. In short, media amplification and personalization of ongoing terrorist crises transforms an international political and diplomatic issue into a domestic political crisis for the president or prime minister charged with dealing with the situation.40 This transformation and pressure can then lead to foolhardy and dangerous attempts to resolve the crisis prematurely with military means, as in the case of President Carter’s disastrous attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran.

What conclusions can be drawn from this brief exploration? First, through the promulgation of definitions and sensationalization of violence, the mass media create a pseudo-reality regarding international terrorism that is both overly simplified and misleading because it generally represents the interests of the dominant powers, usually states. Secondly, the mass media, because of its lack of objectivity, serves more of a propaganda function than that of an impartial transmitter of information. This propaganda function is accomplished through tactics such as euphemistic labeling, advantageous comparison, and amplification and personalization of terrorist incidents. As a result, the public mind is either habituated to the horrendous violence or polarized so that recognition of state terrorism (counter-terrorism) becomes impossible. Both situations lead to a double standard regarding terrorism and the so-called free nations who fight against it.

Is there a solution to the problem? Complete censorship of the media regarding terrorist incidents is one potential solution, but this is at odds with the principles of democratic society and inevitably would lead to abuses by those who have the power of censorship. Rather, the solution appears to lie within the media itself. Until the media take responsibility for the power entrusted to it and strenuously search for the full truth regarding acts of undeclared war (i.e. terrorism), whether committed by states or anti-state forces, the problem will remain. When and if the truth is found, it must then be transmitted in an impartial, subdued way, rather than in the common sensationalist manner. Only when these standards begin to be applied will media-exacerbation of international terrorism decrease and the way be opened to an international political solution to the problem.


  1. The general consensus of International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), was that modern civilization, particularly the liberal democratic form of it, was facing the threat of extermination from the forces of international terrorism. In a later section of the paper I quote some specific references from the proceedings of the conference to illustrate this point.
  1. J. Der Derian, Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), p. 81.
  1. Ibid.
  1. S. Peterson, “Events, Mass Opinion, and Elite Attitudes”, in Communication in International Politics, ed. by R.L. Merritt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), p. 253.
  1. Ibid., pp. 270-271.
  1. N. Chomsky, Keeping the Rabble in Line (Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994), pp. 153-154.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. R. Clutterbuck, Terrorism in an Unstable World (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 3.
  1. N. Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World (Brattleboro: Amana Books, 1990), p. 1.
  1. Ibid., p. 2.
  1. B. Netanyahu, “Chairman’s Opening Remarks for The Face of Terrorism”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p. 5.
  1. P. Johnson, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Terrorism”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p. 15.
  1. L. Chalfont, “Our Main Problem: The Climate of Appeasement”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p. 80.
  1. B. Netanyahu, “Preface to State Support for International Terrorism”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p. 47.
  1. Turkish Daily News, 19 November 1998, p. A7.
  2. J. Der Derian, op. cit., p. 82.
  1. L. Chalfont, op. cit., p. 83.
  1. N. Podhoretz, “The Subtle Collusion”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p 236.
  1. N. Chomsky, 1990, op. cit., p. 124.
  1. Ibid.
  1. A. Bandura, “Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement”, in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, ed. by W. Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 169-170.
  1. S. Hilgartner, R.C. Bell, and R. O’Connor, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982), cited in Bandura, op. cit., p. 170.
  1. W. Safire, “The Fine Art of Euphemism”, San Francisco Chronicle, 13 May 1979, p. 13, cited in Bandura, op. cit., p. 170.
  1. B. Netanyahu, “Preface to The Face of Terrorism”, in International Terrorism: Challenge and Response (proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism), ed. by B. Netanyahu (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1981), p. 1.
  1. A. Bandura, op. cit., p. 171.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid., p. 172.
  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid., p. 166-167.
  1. Ibid., p. 169.
  1. Quoted in Chomsky, 1990, op. cit., p. 78.
  1. M. Crenshaw, “The Logic of Terrorism: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Strategic Choice”, in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, ed. by W. Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 11.
  1. Turkish Probe, 15 November 1998, p. 18.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Ibid.
  1. G. Sick, “Taking Vows: The Domestication of Policy-making in Hostage Incidents”, in Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, ed. by W. Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 242.
  1. Ibid., p. 241.
  1. Ibid., p. 242.

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