Terrorism’s history lesson for political reporters

Photo: Universal History Archive (Getty)

On the evening of October 29, 2004—just a few days before Americans went to the polls in that year’s presidential election—the Qatari-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera aired segments from a videotape of Osama bin Laden. In the film, bin Laden addressed the American people and condemned US involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was widely speculated that the video’s release was timed to influence how Americans would vote.

The events of September 11, 2001, had already ensured that national security would play a central role during the 2004 election. Although the US had not seen a successful attack on home soil since 9/11, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, revealed a year earlier, were fresh in the minds of American voters, and the specter of Al Qaeda terrorism loomed over the 2004 primaries and presidential campaign.

Terrorist attacks exert pressure on both the media—which must quickly report on the incidents while providing accuracy, context, and analysis—and politicians, who are bound to enact new laws and security measures. In our hyper-connected world, the media seeks to act as a filter and narrator of each act of horror, holding those in power responsible where they are perceived to have failed. Governments see it as their duty to respond with new agencies and legislation in an effort to better protect citizens. Failings occur when politicians and the media use public vulnerability to appear decisive or further a political agenda, or to sensationalize in a quest for audience share.

The 2004 presidential election shows that the lack of a serious public debate about the legitimacy of the “War on Terror” served the interest of an incumbent but unpopular president. This happened despite misgivings over how the conflict in Iraq was being prosecuted. Twelve years later, Trump is also attempting to use the fear of terrorism, specifically ISIS, as a motivating tool for voters worried about security.

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Terrorism—and the responses it garners—has never placed such extraordinary pressures on both democracies and the media, which finds itself acting as both filter and participant in the face of such violence. That is especially true in an era when social media platforms have become a dominant new source of information for audience and journalist alike, and sometimes even for the assailants themselves.


Those years deepened the trauma for everyone. There were administrators and bureaucrats who were concerned in that they didn’t want another attack to happen. We were already traumatized by Guantanamo Bay. So we accepted the erosion of our rights as citizens.”


The media’s coverage of politically motivated attacks, however, has often amplified fears over terrorism instead of analyzing or questioning them. During the 2004 election, parts of the media did not devote enough time to examining individual and important policy differences between incumbent President George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Security and terrorism were the predominant issues throughout the 2004 election cycle. For both media and politicians, these were manifest in two distinct forms: fears of another attack like 9/11 and unease over the war in Iraq. Both President Bush and his Democratic challenger Kerry pledged to make America safer. The election focused on persuading voters that each candidate had the most suitable traits and the experience necessary to accomplish this goal. 

A clear pattern emerged: Voters threw their support behind Bush in light of his hard line on terrorism against a backdrop of external threats. One examination of terror warnings issued by the US government between February 1 and May 9, 2004, shows statistical evidence that warnings led to an increase in support for Bush. In one mathematical model, each terror warning from the previous week corresponded to a 2.75-point increase in the percentage of Americans expressing approval for Bush. The warnings even had a similar effect on voter evaluation of Bush’s handling of the economy.

The election cycle was marked by a renewal of media interest in the so-called “War on Terror.” In the days after the events of 9/11, CNN called the ongoing crisis “America’s New War,” and MSNBC described it as “America on Alert.” Fox News, which had already seen considerable gains in its audience share since 9/11, was the first to adopt “War on Terror,” picking up the phrase from the Bush administration.

Issued just four days before polls opened, bin Laden’s video was intended to hold up other recent events, like the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and violence in Iraq, as warnings of what might happen in America. The video immediately raised awareness of Bush’s signature campaign issue: the threat posed to America by terrorism, especially on home soil. Overnight, terrorism command centers throughout America were put on high alert. An initial poll from Newsweek magazine claimed that Bush jumped to a six-point lead as a result of public reaction to bin Laden’s message.

Coverage of the video differed across the media. The New York Times analyzed the speech. The Washington Post additionally provided a full transcript of the message. Fox News, meanwhile, reminded viewers of Al Qaeda’s role in the September 11, 2001, attacks with a more emotional “Bin Laden Claims Responsibility for 9/11.”

The race “became a one-issue election about security,” said Sarah Oates, Professor and Senior Scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “In that sense, the election of 2004 stands very much alone. Say what you will about Americans, we are a practical people in that most of our elections are about economics. There was a sense that people were being manipulated into constantly thinking about security.”

A backdrop of terror warnings and coverage of the bin Laden speech, continued Oates, persuaded many voters to be more sympathetic to Bush’s harder line, despite warnings from some critics that they were accepting the move from an open liberal democracy to a more securitized state. “I think those years deepened the trauma for everyone. There were administrators and bureaucrats who were concerned in that they didn’t want another attack to happen. We were already traumatized by Guantanamo Bay. So we accepted the erosion of our rights as citizens.”


Trump’s aggressive nature has had a profound effect on the pace of news coverage. Media organizations have seen the 24-hour news cycle turn into a minute-by-minute sprint. News isn’t dependent on editors or experts as filters. It exists in the full glare of millions of social media accounts broadcasting on the nation’s mobile devices.


In a 2006 report, Oates examines a sample of news during the campaign—from ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, CBS’s Evening News with Dan Rather, and NBC’s The Nightly News with Tom Brokaw—and finds that 43 percent of all news stories were related to the election, while 22 percent addressed terrorism. After Iraq, terrorism was the most often mentioned subject.

Oates’s study, Comparing the Politics of Fear: The Role of Television News in Election Campaigns in Russia, the United States and Britain, also shows that despite the frequent appearance of terrorism in news stories, TV channels failed to explain the difference in the candidates’ policy proposals. While Bush and Kerry often mentioned terrorism, they held opposing views on a number of issues like the death penalty, abortion, tax cuts, healthcare, and job creation. The same study also reveals that in several instances, Bush criticized his opponent for being too “soft” and lacking a coherent security plan. Kerry usually responded with a pledge to “not waver” and “hunt down the terrorists wherever they are.”

“The tenor of the press coverage in 2004 during the campaign was heavily influenced by the administration’s implied message that if you weren’t supporting their approach, you verged on being unpatriotic,” said Philip Seib, co-author of Global Terrorism and New Media: The Post-al Qaeda Generation and a professor of journalism, public diplomacy, and international relations at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “That period from 2001 to 2004 is marked by the tone taken by Fox News. I think that helped foster the idea of patriotic news coverage.”

Jennifer Merolla, author of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public, said there was a concerted effort to put terrorism at the center of the 2004 campaign. “Terrorism was the one issue which was a salient factor for voters. I’d describe it as pointing to the pack of wolves in the forest. Anything dealing with national security is a challenge for Democrats. We are seeing the same thing in 2016, where Trump is both assertive and bombastic on security.”

Yet the media’s laser-like focus on terrorism caused it to overlook other key issues. In one notable instance, the press spent the better part of a month analyzing the errors contained in a CBS 60 Minutes Wednesday report, broadcast in September 2004, that charged Bush received favorable treatment from the Texas Air National Guard. The investigation centered around memos from 1972 and 1973, suspected to be inauthentic. While host Dan Rather apologized for the report and CBS defended the story for 10 days, coverage lasted weeks. That time could likely have been used more relevantly, in many voters’ minds, to cover the policies of the campaigns in their closing months.

The same media dissonance is on display during the current election. After terrorist attacks like Nice and Paris, Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized President Obama for being weak in fighting ISIS. Using little more than a Twitter account, Trump has received, according to The New York Times, the equivalent of $1.9 billion in free television coverage. He has spent only $10 million on paid advertising and received 62 percent off all coverage during the Republican race.

TV stations have, for the most part, reacted to Trump’s social media statements with opinionated discussion panels and polls. The candidate’s evolving ban on all Muslims entering the US is a strong case in point. From Time’s “Donald Trump Pushes for Muslim Ban After Orlando Shooting” to the Vox explainer, “Donald Trump’s ‘new’ Muslim ban plan is just as scary as the old one,” each iteration of the policy has been given its due analysis. The consequence of this has been to formalize terrorism as a key election issue as well as to stigmatize a vulnerable American minority.

The media’s focus on terrorism is not warranted by the facts. While future incidents of terrorism remain likely, other forms of violence kill more Americans each year. According to figures from the Justice Department and the Council on Foreign Affairs, 11,385 people died in firearm incidents on average annually in the US between 2001 and 2011. In the same period, an average of 517 people were killed annually in terrorism-related incidents. Putting aside the terrorism-related deaths of 2001, the annual average drops to 31.

But Trump’s tactic of creating a media response to his warning of terror attacks has proved largely successful. While his more outlandish accusations—that President Obama created ISIS, for example—have been widely dismissed and mocked, they have still dominated news cycles and forced terrorism to the top of the news agenda.

Trump’s campaign benefits from this in terms of forcing the election to be fought on territory it deems favorable—just as the Bush campaign did in 2004. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed if voters were moderating a 100-minute debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton across 10 issues, they would allocate 15 minutes to hearing the candidates’ plans for keeping the US safe. Economic growth, health care, the budget deficit, and immigration all polled behind terrorism.

“I am worried that a major attack in the election would benefit Donald Trump,” said Brigitte Nacos, a journalist, author, and adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University. “There are already about 40 percent of the public who consistently believe that Trump can cure all of the problems the US has. He [says] at nearly all his appearances that he has a plan to wipe out ISIS. Torture for him is not enough. He says he is going to wipe out the ISIS people and kill their families. In the larger picture, Clinton might be more willing to get involved in foreign wars. But Trump tells his crowd that ISIS is a Clinton creation.”

My research finds two vital differences between media coverage of terrorism during the 2004 and 2016 presidential races. Most obviously, the widespread use of digital journalism and social media has quickly attached human narratives to recent hate crimes like Orlando or terror attacks such as Nice and Paris. Hashtags such as #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists and #NotInMyName have highlighted human stories with long online contrails, which have proved effective in correcting both erroneous reporting and Islamophobia. Much coverage was given to the Union of Muslims of the Alpes-Maritimes’ findings that a third of the people killed in Nice were Muslim.


While terrorism poses few direct challenges to the existence of a modern state, it does raise serious questions about how new security laws are written in their aftermath, the political atmosphere that allows them swift passage, and their effects on our civil liberties.


More significantly, the American media has also had to adapt to the major challenges of real-time coverage of the presidential race. Fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck, as well as instant fact-checking departments at newspapers like The Washington Post, have all had an impact on the election process. Studies have also highlighted their success: More than eight in 10 Americans having a favorable view of fact checking.

As an unconventional Republican candidate, Trump’s aggressive nature has had a profound effect on the pace of news coverage. Media organizations have seen the 24-hour news cycle turn into a minute-by-minute sprint. News isn’t dependent on editors or experts as filters. It exists in the full glare of millions of social media accounts broadcasting on the nation’s mobile devices. 

The intense and often spectacular nature of terrorism can render it difficult to make sense of each incident beyond the immediate horror of the event. The pace and shocking violence of attacks on civilian targets, and their consequences for human liberties, provide valuable lessons in how both new and established media react. Each example demonstrates how different responses from politicians can shape both the minds of the electorate and a subsequent election.

As many of the experts I interviewed note, the aftershocks of terrorism are felt for years in both established and emerging democracies. While terrorism poses few direct challenges to the existence of a modern state, it does raise serious questions about how new security laws are written in their aftermath, the political atmosphere that allows them swift passage, and their effects on our civil liberties. 

Media, politicians, and social platforms will all have to adapt to new challenges in the years ahead. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter–which, in the hands of victims and perpetrators of terrorism, can bypass traditional media–will continue to face scrutiny over accuracy, neutrality, and user intent. Politicians and journalists will continue to have their decisions tested by how they respond to terrorism, and they must encourage discussion of how terrorism can manipulate the political process. The first priority of governments and the media should be to protect the traditions and objectives of democracy while informing the public.

 

This article is adapted from a Tow report by the same author. It is part of a series on journalism and terrorism that is the product of a partnership between the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Democracy Fund Voice.

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Burhan Wazir is an award-winning journalist and a former Head of Opinion at Al Jazeera English. He has been living in the Middle East since 2008. He has previously worked at The Observer and The Times of London, and was part of the core management team which launched The National newspaper in the United Arab Emirates in 2008, where he was Weekend Editor.