At the service of politicians
Media coverage of terrorism has ballooned since 9/11,
despite the fact that the number of incidents and
victims is the lowest for years
Wednesday August 4, 2004
The millennium may not be very old, but there's no
doubt which news story has dominated it thus far.
Since the attacks on the twin towers on September 11
2001, terrorism has remained at the top of the news
agenda. Whether it is terrorist incidents, arrests,
warnings from politicians or coverage of the actions
carried out in the name of the "war on terror", we
have seen more sustained coverage of the issue than at
any other time in the modern era.
This is true even if we exclude the peak year of 2001.
Since January 2002, the Times, Financial Times, the
Guardian, the Mail and the Mirror, have, between them,
run an average of 400 stories about international
terrorism every year. And the trend is upward, not
downward. If we compare that with a
four-and-a-half-year period before 9/11 (from 1997 to
mid 2001), this amounts to a five-fold increase in
Conventional wisdom - informed by a steady stream of
political rhetoric - says that this is a response to
the increasing risk posed by global terrorism since
the attack on the twin towers. Indeed, the British
government's recent leaflet advising citizens what to
do in the event of an attack - together with a
succession of warnings from the US government - imply
the risk has reached unprecedented levels. And yet
what is strikingly absent from both public discussion
or news coverage is that there is little concrete
evidence to support this view.
The US government's own figures on international
terrorism - which it defines as the targeting of
non-combatants or property by non-state agents and
includes the actions of groups like the IRA, the UDF
and Eta - suggests that the most active period of
international terrorist activity was the mid-80s. With
occasional blips - such as 1991 and 1999 to 2001 - the
annual number of terrorist attacks has been in general
decline since then.
The evidence suggests that the attack on 9/11 was not
the dawn of a new era of global terrorism, but a
devastating one-off. Indeed, the years since then have
seen fewer incidents per year than at any time in the
last 20 years. The recent annual rate is only a third
of the level reached between 1985 and 1988.
But surely the attacks in the US, Bali and Madrid show
that the scale of terrorist attacks has escalated,
even if there are fewer of them? Well, again, the
figures tell a different story. In terms of the number
of casual ties of international terrorism from 1998 to
2003, the peak year was not 2001, as most people might
assume. Despite the 4,465 casualties on 9/11 (which
alone accounted for 77% ofcasualties that year) there
were more victims from international terrorist attacks
three years earlier, in 1998.
The fact that 80% of the casualties that year were in
Africa might partly explain (though by no means
excuse) the lack of political and media interest. But
this explanation only goes so far: after all, many of
the 1998 incidents involved attacks by al-Qaida on US
targets, and there were also a comparatively high
number of casualties (405) that year in western
Indeed, a closer look at the last 20 years of media
coverage of international terrorism reveals that there
is little relation between the number of international
terrorist incidents in any given year and the use of
the term in the press.
If we take the Times, Financial Times and the
Guardian, for example, we see fluctuations in media
coverage that bear little relation to global trends.
International terrorism became highly newsworthy in
1986 (receiving more mentions than any of the last 20
years except 2001). This was the year in which Libya
became the bÍte noire of international terrorism, and
President Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli. But
while the US data shows an increase in the number of
terrorist attacks in 1987, news coverage that year
dropped significantly, to less than a quarter of the
But the biggest mismatch between the coverage of
terrorism and terrorist incidents is, without doubt,
the period from 2002 to the present day. News coverage
is at its highest-ever sustained level, while there
have been fewer terrorist attacks than at any time in
the last two decades.
How to explain this discrepancy? Well, unfortunately,
it's not unusual to see media coverage bear little
relation to actual levels of risk. Media research on
agenda-setting shows that - whether the topic is
crime, drugs, war or the environment - there is often
little relation between the volume of coverage and
In many instances, what the media are responding to is
not an increase in the problem but an increase of
political rhetoric. Both the war on drugs and the war
on terror boosted media coverage which, in turn,
justified a series of political initiatives.
This, combined with the US-centric nature of British
news media, meant that the idea that "the world
changed" on 9/11 became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, just as the war on drugs in the US in the late 80s
led to a massive increase in news coverage about the
issue - while drug use remained fairly static - so the
war on terror has made every act, threat or worry
about terrorism far more newsworthy than hitherto.
This kind of coverage distorts our perception of risk.
So, despite the government's chief scientific
adviser's warning that global warming is a much
greater threat to life than global terrorism,
terrorism ranks high on the public's list of concerns,
while climate change scarcely registers. Worse, it
creates a news climate - in the US at least - where
politicians can expend considerable energy and public
money on the war on terror while issues like global
warming can be brushed aside.
∑ Justin Lewis is professor of communication at the
Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.