Carlos Munoz Burgos
Opinion: The role of media in the fight against crime and terrorism
The media can have a very powerful effect on people’s understanding of terrorism and crime and violence. In this post, I will focus specifically on news outlets. It theory, news outlets should impartially inform citizens of events that are occurring in their community, country, and the world. However, we know that news outlets are not always impartial and that sometimes they respond to specific agendas and/or interests. This is often the case when these outlets are owned by actors who have a stake in the outcome of a particular issue. For example, if a radio is owned by someone who also owns a resort in an area that has recently seen an increase in crime and violence, it is likely that this radio will not report on this violence increase, unless it is to demand government action.
Unfortunately, some news outlets are also interested in having a large audience because that represents higher revenues. One way of doing this is by appealing to people’s most basic senses and providing content that calls their attention. Such content includes violent images, sensationalist stories, stereotypical portrayals of people and groups, and any type of sexual content. The issue with this is that by providing content to make money, news outlets are no longer partially informing, but selling content to a specific audience and to increase their followers’ base.
One of the stereotypes that news outlets have exploited in the US is that of the Muslim terrorist. Ask yourself what comes to your mind when you hear the word terrorist. In the US, if news outlets provided people with accurate information on what the real terrorist threat is in this country, then their idea of terrorism would complete change, and the first image that would come to their minds when they hear the word terrorist would be that of a white supremacist. The Independent reported last year that terror attacks in the US receive five times more attention if the perpetrator is Muslim. However, the reality is that between 2011 and 2015, Muslims carried out just 12.4 percent of attacks in the US but received 41.4 percent of news coverage. Also, news outlets have a real difficulty labeling an act of terror as such when the perpetrator is white. The terrorist who rammed his car into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, Virginia, was not called a terrorist by media outlets although his act involved terror and was politically and ideologically motivated.
The role of news outlets is also influential in other parts of the world. In Central America, news outlets report on the homicides that occur every day with very violent and inappropriate images. When one sees numerous images of dead bodies in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries’ newspapers, one wonders how often these newspapers’ printers ran out of red ink. There are at least three issues with this type of reporting. First, the continued reporting of these crimes in a sensationalist manner normalizes homicides and desensitizes people, making them extremely tolerant of violence. Second, news outlets’ portrayal of gang members or perpetrators of violence as powerful, mysterious, and fighters of a cause, further builds a narrative which vulnerable youth fall into. This type of reporting creates further appeal of these groups to youth.
News outlets can also have a negative impact on matters of national security. For example, a few weeks ago, I posted a piece on how news outlets pressured the Ecuadorian government to make bad decisions by opening a communication channel with FARC dissidents who had kidnapped Ecuadorean journalists, and, therefore giving legitimacy to this group. The terrorists killed the kidnapped journalists and, in the following weeks, kidnapped an Ecuadorian couple because they knew that this strategy gives them media coverage and gets the Ecuadorian government’s attention.
I have read many good, impartial coverages of crime and terrorism. These are longer-than-usual stories in newspapers, and do not include violent images. Unfortunately, only a few people read these stories, so the majority of the population continues holding uninformed views of important issues such as terrorism and crime. There should be a shift in the way crime and terrorism is covered by most news outlets to better inform populations and influence policy.