Western Media and ISIS Terror Attacks

Emily Dillistone

Charlie Hebdo, a controversial French magazine that publishes satirical cartoons, was never considered particularly heroic before the 2015 ISIS attack that killed 12 in their headquarters. The reporting on this event, along with the numerous fatal attacks that have occurred over the past few years, forms a powerful and essential part of terrorism’s tyranny over people’s psychology across the world. The current attacks hark back to 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005 when the Western World was shaken by a foreign and terrifying force. Since these traumatic events, the West, and increasingly the whole world, has begun to live in fear of attacks. These past few years have seen a multitude of terrorist attacks across Europe and central Asia. To put it in context, while the Global Terrorism Database recorded 1,395 attacks in 1998, in 2012 this figure reached a record high of 8,441. Likewise, the total number of casualties from terrorist attacks in the past 15 years has soared from 3,387 to 15,396.

Since Bin Laden’s attack on the Twin Towers, the world has witnessed an increasing hostility towards Muslims, with islamophobia forming the backbone of the rhetoric propounded by Trump’s Presidential Campaign, Britain’s UKIP, France’s Front National, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. Fear and anger, along with resentment of the establishment, have propelled Europeans towards a far-right extremist politics with a keenness to ‘protect their own’ from foreign terrors. Extremism and extremist politics seem to be on the rise, not just in Europe, but globally.

Terror attacks are unique in their kind due to several factors: the organization required for them to take place, and the visibility they reach in the media. Media threats are reported, no matter whether they are small or large. Michael Jetter, an academic researcher in Germany and the US, analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 and found that terrorist attacks drew a disproportionate amount of media attention. He discovered that 42 people die every day from terrorist attacks, compared with 7,123 children who die from hunger-related causes, yet the former receives far more attention.

In the early 2000s, terrorist organizations relied on pamphlets and video cassettes while media appearances were seldom, so the few pieces of propaganda that were released tended to hit big. In 2004, Zarqawi, a formerly unknown ex-convict, became a world-famous Islamic militant when his video of the execution of a young American contractor called Nicholas Berg was downloaded half a million times in 24 hours. In 2006, the 3-minute video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was leaked and viewed by millions around the world. Even more so today, groups such as ISIS manipulate the media and new technology to their advantage. Many of the attacks in Paris were reported using photos and videos taken by passers-by and people targeted by the attacks. ISIS no longer needs to equip its killers with cameras because the public will publicize the event for them. And this soon becomes a vicious cycle: research shows that sensationalist media coverage of terrorist acts results in further acts of terrorism.

Terrorism is commonly defined as criminal acts intended to create a state of terror among a group of people deemed by the terrorists to be ‘morally objectionable’. But here is where one must be careful with terminology. A key component to terrorism is that it is a foreign threat, and therefore terrorism is and by nature subjective and situational. During the Indian struggle for independence, for example, those who fought in the resistance were a kind of ‘terrorist’ to British soldiers, but for the people of India they represented freedom.

In the West, ISIS’ brand has more than tainted the image of the supposed Religion of Peace. Muslims have become an all too easy target for racial abuse and many Western newspapers pounce on any new opportunity to exacerbate the already well-embedded islamophobia prejudices that exist in Europe and the United States. A key example of this is the Bastille Day terror attack in Nice earlier this year on 14 July 2016. A man drove a lorry down the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people. The Telegraph’s headline read “Nice terror attack: 'soldier of Islam' Bouhlel 'took drugs and used dating sites to pick up men and women'”. Newspapers were determined to depict the attacker as a sleazy ISIS-supporter, despite the lack of hard evidence to link his attack to the terrorist organisation.

Reporting on the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris was similarly misleading. In the immediate aftermath of the attack the journalism firm was masqueraded as the modern proponent of free speech. Facebook even enabled its users to change their profile picture to a French flag to ‘stand in solidarity’ with the people of France. The reaction to the attack was so far-flung that when Ankara was attacked a few months later on 10 October, many people on social media asked why there was no such public outcry in response to the attack. With 103 dead and 400 injured on 10 October, later 13 dead and 125 injured at the bus stop bombing on 13 March 2016, and on 17 February 2016 29 dead and 60 injured left by the military convoy attack, Ankara is the city that has suffered some of the greatest losses of any ISIS attack. So where is the hashtag #benakarayim?”

Of course, from the UK’s perspective, the Paris attacks are more alarming due to the city’s geographical proximity: Ankara is almost 3000km further away from London than Paris is. However, this is not simply an issue of geography. Facebook’s headquarters are in the United States, yet while on 13 November 2015 people in France could mark themselves “safe” to reassure their friends and family, no such function was provided to the survivors of attacks in Ankara. This is not for lack of Facebook users in Turkey; according to Reuters, in 2011 Turkey already had 30 million Facebook accounts, making it the fourth largest country of Facebook users in the world. Numerous other attacks have occurred in the East, such as the June 2015 Dayarbakiir rally bombings, in which four were killed and 400 were injured, and the suicide bombings in Istanbul and Bursa, which also had high death tolls. Yet none were reported with as much fervour and panic as were the attacks on the West. Between 2015 and 2016, the attacks that made headline news were the attack in Brussels, the Russian plane attack, the Paris attack, and the San Bernardino attack. It is worth noting that the lattermost attack was the smallest of the major ISIS attacks. The issue cannot be ignored: the Western media overwhelmingly opts to report on white deaths and casualties comparatively to deaths and causalities in countries where white is not the dominant race.

The discrepancy is evident still in issues extending beyond race. In January 2015 Paris witnessed several attacks, but the attacks on Jewish supermarkets seemed to almost pass the international news stations by. On 9 January French police were called in to deal with two hostage-taking situations taking place in Jewish supermarkets in Paris, yet this was not deemed altogether that newsworthy. By contrast, the attack of the high-speed Thalys train on 21 August 2015 made international news, though, likewise, there were no fatal casualties. A notable difference: the involvement of three US citizens, two of whom were soldiers.

Many will remember the tragic case of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria in April 2014. The group have since kidnapped over 2,000 girls. The hashtag #bringbackourdaughters reached Michelle Obama, but the case still did not receive even half as much attention as the abduction of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite the fact that this is a time when social media and online reporting were not half as developed as they are now. The truth is, the abduction and rape of hundreds of black women is not half as appealing to a Western audience as the disappearance of a cute little American white girl.

This August the suicide bombing of a hospital in Quetta yet again brought to the fore the double standard the West manifests in its news reporting. The bombing left at least 70 dead and more than 100 wounded, making the attack one of the most fatal to have been carried out in Pakistan. Survivors of attacks in the East are rightfully outraged by the comparative lack of coverage and recognition of their suffering in the rest of their world. So what is to be done? The French media has stated that it will not show pictures of terrorists, but one could argue that the damage of racial profiling has already been done: the ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ stereotypes are so regularly conflated and misrepresented that the two have become virtually indistinguishable in the mind of the Western citizen. Moreover, it is somewhat difficult to support the notion that France is successfully dealing with its prejudices given Marine le Pen’s standing in the presidential polls. It seems evident after this discussion that the most proactive way forward is to cease using the term ‘terrorism’ to describe attacks, as it seems to obscure the crime. Moreover, naming the perpetrator of a crime a ‘terrorist’ can sometimes afford the killer more attention than necessary. So is it the fault of the media? I believe that news sites do have a responsibility, though not a mandate, to be objective, and to report news fairly and without bias. Efforts to be disinterested when it comes to reporting attacks is yet to manifest itself in many Western newspapers, and it seems to me that this is the main factor fuelling racial hatred and prejudice in the Western world in 2016.