I listen to National Public Radio when I'm in my car and either of the network's two signature news programs -- "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" -- happen to be airing. That was the case one day last week when I heard a guest on ATC being interviewed about the London terrorist attack and the radicalization of homegrown Islamic terrorists.
One factor contributing to this radicalization, he said, is the saturation coverage the attacks tend to receive.
In essence, the question he posed was: Do news media inadvertently advance the terrorists' game plan by inappropriately publicizing their attacks, leading to heightened fears in the general public -- one of terrorism's clearest objectives.
It's a knotty and important question that seems to surface after every successful attack in a Western city.
Most often, the question is raised by someone put forth as an expert on terrorism attached to some think tank or university. By now, I'd wager there isn't a Western news room or journalism school that hasn't wrestled with the question.
I'd also bet that few if any of these discussions ended in general agreement on some practical way forward that's applicable to all attacks under all circumstances.
I know I lack a one-size-fits-all standard -- which doesn't mean that someone else has not come up with some broadly general standard for coverage. If any reader happens to be that person, please say so in the comment section below.
Here's the relevant part of the ATC interview I heard last week. The interviewer is NPR's Kelly McEvers and the interviewee is Rajan Basra, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at London's King's College.
BASRA: ... But aside from trying to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place, we also have to accept that terrorism is just a fact of life in the West these days. And so perhaps it's better to make society more resilient to the effects of terrorism.
MCEVERS: What do you mean?
BASRA: In the sense that terrorism aims to terrorize people. So if these attacks just don't gather that much attention or don't cause so much panic as they would otherwise do, this kind of defeats the whole purpose of this attacker engaging in that act.
MCEVERS: So don't cover them in the news.
BASRA: It's not necessarily about not covering them in the news, but I think much of the coverage is alarmist, and I think these attacks should actually reinforce the identities and values that we hold so that we can not only just survive these attacks, but after the fact, we can rediscover what it is that this society stands for.
I wish Basra had been asked to further clarify his thinking. Or maybe he was and his response was cut from the interview as it was broadcast or posted on the NPR website.
Either way, the section of the interview quoted above is all we have, so let's take a closer look at Basra's brief comment about how alarming much of the coverage can be. I think he's undoubtedly correct that much of the coverage is alarmist, and that it can add to the process of radicalization.
Watch how cable news, whether it's Fox or CNN, the two leaders in the field, breathlessly cover an attack and it soon becomes obvious.
For news media, An individual outlet's leanings tend not to matter as much as grabbing and holding on to as many eyeballs as possible. Of course the web -- with its ever-growing number of news and quasi-news sites blasting out instantaneous headlines that often prove misleading -- further complicates the situation.
In short, the ultra-competitive 24/7 media climate makes it virtually impossible to heed warnings about alarmist reporting, no matter how accurate they may be.
At the same time, however, it's also important to public safety that news about an ongoing attack -- no matter how sketchy the information may be -- is disseminated quickly about areas to be avoided, and such. Suppressing negative news just does not fly in democracies.
In short, it's ridiculous to even contemplate withholding news of an attack against the public, when at least some members of the public have already been impacted and are sure to spread the word, at a minimum, on social media. Nor can we count on politicians -- whose self-interested reactions to attacks as often as not tend to further alarm the public -- to help the situation.
Basra's NPR interview was hardly alone in bringing up the coverage debate.
A quick Google search found the issue also being discussed in this piece posted by NBC, and this one from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, among others. Even the less than authoritative but popular (in the United Kingdom, at least) UNILAD news web site is taking this on.
Perhaps the true value of the UNILAD post is to remind us that it's even possible to exploit a terrorist attack by writing critically about how the media tends to exploit terrorist attacks.
I've spoken here about attacks by Islamists. However, to be sure, the same issues arise no matter what cultural, religious or political faction a perpetrator claims to represent. For better or worse, it's simply how journalism functions.
GetReligion readers: Again, if any of you have thought this situation through to a different conclusion than I have, please say your piece in the comments section below. Because this is not an issue that will soon fade and it deserves continued consideration.