Sensationalizing Media & Terrorism: The Achilles Heel of the American People

Our new media landscape has created a new, less tangible paradigm of fear.  Terrorist organizations and insurgency groups (many of whom partake in terrorist activity) successfully utilize these media technologies. Diverse media channels have become the primary tools terrorists use to influence and create emotional turmoil across global boundaries. Groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram progressively implement digital campaigns and innovative media technology to inculcate fear into the hearts of billions around the world. The fear that is so ubiquitously circulated through media platforms doesn’t have to continue in this manner; our society has a voice in how to thwart this issue.

The media and the actions of terrorists groups work in a vicious cycle. Violence is a language that insurgency groups like ISIS use to generate international media coverage. In conjunction, television and digital outlets continuously produce media coverage concerning these horrific acts. Often times the coverage that is disseminated includes more than just the vital details (lofty assumptions, over exaggeration of materials) and can be drawn out over a number of weeks without producing new developments within an investigation or ongoing story. With this, terrorist groups receive validation that their attacks will be reported on for weeks to come as they’ve met the requirements for a ‘newsworthy’ story. For example, the coverage of the burning of the Jordanian pilot exploded with the fervor ISIS was hoping for. Terrorist organizations and insurgency groups understand the effectiveness of popular media and will continue to use it during their reign of terror.

Front Cover of the NY Daily News

Organizations such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram select an appropriate target, a startling tactic, and an intended message. They must plan precisely to target their political objective. For example, an attack in Syria will only firmly establish emotional distress in the USA if the story is distributed repetitively throughout the public sphere. While physical targets of terrorist groups may remain predominantly within the Middle East, virtual targets such as the United States and the UK have arisen. Columbia University Professor Brigitte L. Nacos argues that “getting the attention of the mass media, the public, and decision makers is the raison d’etre behind modern terrorism’s increasingly shocking violence” [1]. Thus, success ultimately hinges on the reaction of individuals and the volume of media coverage. If violent attacks do not generate lasting media attention, the attack ultimately fails; insurgents and terrorists lose the battle of media inducement.

However, attacks like those performed by ISIS do receive copious amounts of media coverage. They get coverage because media incentivizes and monetizes stories that have opportunity for site traffic. Usually those with a high caliber of violence or drama, like terrorist attacks, fulfill this aspiration. “Terrorist acts unfortunately possess elements sympathetic with news values, such as drama, visuals, sound bites, relevance, and general newsworthiness” [2]. Because of extremist efforts to exploit the media, sensationalizing the extent of terrorist activity becomes an asset to the perpetrators at the expense of our society.

Of course, freedom of the press is a constitutional right and reporting on the facts will always be an imperative to keeping the American people informed. Nonetheless, public overreaction to extremist attacks due to media sensationalism of terrorist activity can be detrimental. For example, our publicity and extensive reporting on terrorist organizations and their actions often times excludes detailed summaries of the victims; without framing reports in a way that focuses on the victimization of individuals, populations, or regions, the reports (sometimes unknowingly) promote the terrorist agenda while strengthening an organization’s brand as an entity.

Another example is the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, that left media outlets buzzing for weeks. While the support from individuals around the world with the use of the hashtags #IAmCharlie or #JeSuisCharlie provided an international sense of unity, the public outrage gave the Al Qaeda organization the attention they crave.

Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris

Reactions like these are inspiring for global morale, but they sometimes demonstrate that extreme tactics can have universal impact. Nacos suggests that this kind of widespread, outspoken response is precisely the kind of response that the attack was design to create: “the media’s reporting of terrorist spectaculars helps to facilitate two of the universal goals of terrorism. Terrorists gain attention when the volume and placement of news coverage affects the public agenda [1]”.


CNN’s coverage

To combat the sensationalization of terrorism through the media,  society on a global scale, must work together to prevent the publicity of terrorist groups. Sensationalism is different than reporting. Sensationalizing is a type of editorial bias, through mass media platforms, in which topics in news stories are over-hyped to increase viewership or traffic to a website page/article. Sensationalized news utilizes techniques that focus more on the carnage of the story, rather than reporting the facts. Reporting is simply a spoken or written account of an event, usually in great detail, intended for media broadcast. When an attack occurs, it is the responsibility of the press to report and inform citizens worldwide on the significance and gravity of the event. To combat sensationalized material and unnecessary promotion of terrorist branding, individuals could cease to report on an event after a set time period of a few days. The attack would then cease to be sensationalized through any media venue.

In totality, adhering to restricted time frames and reduced frequency of reports, individuals and media outlets would report abundant amounts of news for the initial periods of an event concerning terrorism. News outlets could then voluntarily cease the continuous commentary of the same event no matter how ‘newsworthy’ the event may be, in order to deprive extremist groups the success of manipulation through emotional disturbance and implantation of fear. In conjunction with this, news stories should be framed in an alternative light that focus on the victims of an attack instead of the spotlight shining on the terrorist organization itself that carried out the attack.

This type of policing needs to come from individuals and citizens, not from the media institutions themselves. We have potential to mature in this paradigm of fear; we can see what’s being reported on in the media and if sensationalization takes place we have the power to voice that enough is enough. We have also seen global outrage and all-pervasive fear flow through newsrooms with impressive speed, along with weeks of unfailing conversations about ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their rise to power. As terrorists look at the impact they have on a nation using media as a catalyst, we could make attacks a less attractive tactic for insurgency groups to copy. The government could also generate a response to these types of organizations with minimal publicity, while implementing different methods in educating the American public: they could convey a straightforward message with citizens concerning present threats. This would include a brief description of unilateral or collective action being employed imminently, which also discusses possibilities for the future.

Prospective metrics for what to expect could also be distributed (i.e. describing the nature of the threat we face, the targets and tactics of that threat, the time frame of the threat, and goals of the organization posing the said threat). It is imperative citizens understand that extremist groups vehemently wish to decrease citizen-based confidence in the government. Brigitte Nacos recommends, “…that democratically-elected officials in a free society should do all they can to give their people as much information as possible about terrorist threats, then trust them to make the right decisions” [1].

The most important counter-terrorism tool is an educated population. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed this well: “Democracies must find ways to starve the terrorists and hijackers of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” In lieu of this, terrorists come in many shapes and sizes, but all thrive on the free publicity of media outlets who too eagerly report on their barbarity. Many times this multiplies the effect of a single action and artificially increases the reach of these organizations. Parsing out when honest, necessary reporting becomes unhelpful, gratuitous and potentially detrimental to the audience is beneficial to society as a whole.

Nations would be keen to aid their constituents understanding that a powerful weapon of insurgents and terrorists, and the vulnerability of the American people, will always be our own fear. Finding the hole in protective security measures, such as the American population’s education on terrorist activity and counterterrorism measures, is one step. The other is to work together as a global media community to de-sensationalize reports and publicity distributed about terrorist activity, in an effort to diminish extremist groups’ high profiles, relentless media reaction, and to tarnish their media agendas. Finally, by doing this, trepidation and emotional turmoil can be reduced, which terminates terrorist publicity efforts. Publicity is a powerful means that can also assure us that fear need not be the answer to extremist media strategies. Accomplishing these goals could ultimately remove the fuel that powers the insurgent engine: public fear.

 Work Cited

[1] Biernatzki, William E., ed. “Terrorism and Mass Media.” Communication ResearchTrends:Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture 21.1 (2002): 1-42. CiteSeerX. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.<>.

[2]Papacharissi, Zizi, and Maria De Fatima Oliveira. “News Frames Terrorism: AComparative Analysis of Frames Employed in Terrorism Coverage in U.S. and U.K. Newspapers.” The International Journal of Press/Politics (2008): 52-74. Sage Journals. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>.

Other Works

Harrison, Simon J., Zazie Todd, and Rebecca Lawton. “Talk About Terrorism and theMedia: Communicating With the Conduit Metaphor.” Communication, Culture & Critique (2008): 378-95. Wiley Online Library. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <>

Knowlton, Brian. “Digital War Takes Shape on Websites Over ISIS.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <>.

London, Martin. “Why Tolerate Terrorist Publications?” The New York Times. The NewYork Times, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <>.

[6] Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 15Feb. 2015. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <>.

  • Randy Andreww

    Well written and expressive article, the fact remains is that the media is the tool of terrorists and it carries the fear and radicalization of the masses…ignorant people believe it all resulting in a big win for terrorists. We all like looking at the car wreck..Sad.