Here’s how not to report on the US government’s terror warnings

If you turned on the television or checked your phone in the lead up to July 4th, it was almost impossible to miss the wall-to-wall coverage blaring ominous warnings from the US government: ISIS terrorists could strike Americans at any minute over the holiday weekend.

As it often is in such instances, the media’s reporting was breathless, hyperbolic, and barely contained a hint of skepticism. When nothing happened—as has been the case literally every time the government has issued these warnings in the past—there was no apparent self-reflection by these media outlets about how they could have tempered their coverage.

Instead, many doubled down by re-writing government press releases, claiming that arrests that happened well before July 4th, and in which the alleged criminals never mentioned the American holiday, are proof of “just how close” the US came to a terror attack over the holiday weekend.

During the Bush administration, terror alerts were issued with such frequency that they were widely derided and criticized—even by seasoned counter-terrorism experts. Now that ISIS has emerged, the Bush administration’s derided “color code system” is gone, but the willingness of the media to immediately buy into the idea that the public should be freaking out is still alive and well. The last two years have seen the media become much more skeptical of government surveillance powers. Yet when the terror alert flashes, they revert right back to their old ways.

Last weekend’s coverage was a case study in rash judgment. All the caveats issued with the warning’s release were hardly noticeable, downplayed and buried in the middle of the articles, sandwiched in-between urgent calls for caution from various government agencies. 

There will soon be a next time; the government will issue a warning, and the media will inevitably jump. When it does, the first rule of reporting should be to determine whether the alerts are based on anything at all and to put that information in the lede. Authorities flatly acknowledged two weeks ago that they have no “credible” or “specific” information that any attacks will occur, but that barely registered in the media’s coverage.

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CBS News waited until the sixth paragraph in one of their main articles on the subject to tell its readers of the mitigating information. USA Today also stuck the phrase in the middle of its sixth paragraph and never returned to it. CNN, with a finely honed talent for siren headlines, didn’t disclose this information until their 10th paragraph.

NBC News, though, was the most brazen. They told readers that authorities “are unaware of any specific or credible threat inside the country” in the 7th paragraph, quickly followed by a qualifier that could not contain more hyperbole if they tried: “But the dangers are more complex and unpredictable than ever.” Really? Apparently the dangers are more complex and unpredictable than ever if you ignore the fact that terrorism attacks in the US are close to all-time lows, and that Americans have generally never been safer.

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Photo: After watching three or four terrifying CNN clips that we’re all going to die, they squeeze in one segment telling us, actually, we’ve never been safer.

None of these major news stories mentioned that the US government had issued similar terrorism warnings that generated alarming headlines at least forty times since 9/11. As FAIR’s Adam Johnson detailed, all forty times nothing happened. If news organizations are going to list all the reasons readers should be scared, they should at least attempt to note the reasons that they probably shouldn’t be.

Even taking the terror alerts at face value, almost no one asked the question of why there was a sudden and intense worry about ISIS attacks in the United States. Is it because ISIS’s modus operandi calls for terrorism in the US, or is it because US military attacks on ISIS increase the chances that ISIS will want to attack the US back?

Recent academic research, after all, concludes “the deployment of troops overseas increases the likelihood of transnational terrorist attacks against the global interests of the deploying state.” Shouldn’t the fact that the US might be increasing the chances that ISIS will aim an attack against civilians in the United States by starting another long term war in the Middle East be part of the discussion?

The US government quickly justified its terrorism warnings after July 4th, announcing that it had arrested a few alleged ISIS sympathizers planning attacks. It’s hard to tell who the FBI arrested, as the FBI director “would not say what the plots entailed or how many people had been arrested.”

But judging from public arrest records, there is no indication that any terrorism suspects were planning anything around that specific day. They were arrested before the alerts even went out, and before large numbers of people were ever at risk.

Like the vast majority of other recent arrests of terrorism suspects in the US, it’s also likely these arrestees were hapless rubes with mental health issues, not terrorism masterminds.

It has become a pattern: the FBI announces a high-profile terrorism arrest that sounds gravely dangerous, and then we later find out through court documents the suspect was poor and likely mentally-ill, and that FBI informants were directing the “attack” every step of the way. Several recent investigations have shown the disturbing frequency in which FBI informants suggested, cajoled, pressured, entrapped, and even planned the “terrorist attacks” for the arrested suspects every step of the way.

The gripping HBO documentary “The Newburgh Four” or the more recent short film “Entrapped”—about a group of “terrorists” first prosecuted by presidential candidate Chris Christie, who never attempted to commit terrorism at all—have exposed this practice to a wider audience, yet this tactic still barely makes it into traditional media coverage announcing yet another attack thwarted.

I’m certainly not arguing the media should ignore ISIS or any potential threat it poses to Americans. Terrorist attacks of all stripes, while extremely rare, will always be a risk to the American public and citizens around the world. But evidence-free fear-mongering at the behest of the government does no one any good.

A little perspective would certainly go a long way. Over July 4th weekend, two people in Indiana died in separate fireworks accidents. That’s two more people than ISIS has killed on US soil in the terrorist group’s entire existence. 

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Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends journalism dedicated to transparency and accountability. He is also a twice-weekly columnist for the Guardian, where he writes about privacy, national security, and the media.