The formulaic saturation coverage that follows any major terrorist atrocity can be riveting. The first cycles of coverage, however, are often hyped-up, alarmist, confusing, exploitive, premature and ultimately wildly inaccurate when more facts emerge.
So for conscientious but frustrated newsies, I offer some tips that may help for more mindful encounters with today’s media in the fog after major terrorist events:
• Remember that manipulating public and political reaction is the dominant goal of a terrorist act. Generating excessive public fear (terror), inspiring shortsighted political or military reactions, creating global propaganda and the illusion of real power to rev up their followers are what constitutes success.
Aside from eliminating the perpetrators and their networks, the most effective public, rhetorical and political responses are actually understatement, calm and projecting existential invincibility. This is what terrorism experts prescribe, but it is difficult for democracies in today’s media age.
• Be wary even of the “consensus” conclusions in the early days.
• Live television coverage can drive you nuts (and if it doesn’t, you might try to get out a little more). TV is useful for a sense of place, for seeing and hearing key players directly. It is also inefficient and thin compared to more convenient alternatives.
The big TV news event is constantly satirized for good reason. Pressure for scoops leads to errors and a silly focus on what “we have learned exclusively” — no matter how incremental. It overplays spats between hacks, gaffes and the most outrageous quotes floating around the blabosphere. It is obsessed with finding people and agencies to blame. And there is the exploitation of victims, the melodrama amidst true drama.
Most major newspaper and news sites now produce live blogs for these big stories. They get the hard news out just as fast as broadcasters, usually with more careful phrasing, and with links to confirming sources, background material and reporting from other news outlets. It’s all on-demand, and you can pursue what you want.
• Ignore the polling. Instant polls rarely have enduring value and almost always err on the side of emotion and jerking knees. Public opinion returns to the norm quickly.
• Beware of buzzwords. There is no better example than the word “mastermind.” There are very few genuine masterminds in the history of terrorism. Most supposed masterminds are actually murderous, delusional zealots who stumbled through a plot that escaped detection more through luck than cunning. Every atrocity is not the work of a mastermind. Mindlessly using that word inflates both our fears and the aura of the terrorists’ competence.
• Apply extra-strength skepticism to the most dire predictions and prognosticators. The most pessimistic voices naturally pose as the most brutally realistic or “serious.” Dick Cheney would be the dark master of this. But since 9/11, none of the commonly predicted worst-case terrorist scenarios materialized in America or the West. They could, yes, but they haven’t.
• Don’t feel bad if you want to tune out for a couple weeks. Hard information will be more plentiful, reliable accounts produced, and sounder analyses published, and the more irresponsible candidates and legislators will be bingeing on the next big thing.