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“Terrorists & The Media”


Book-3: War, Conflicts, Security, and The Military -1.0


Bad makes News – Media over simplifies and endlessly repeats itself exaggerating the incident – Terrorists manipulate the Media and use NGO’s to shape the story – Authorities must be as open with the Media as possible and Media must act more responsibly.

Quotations for consideration:

  • “… given that there’s been probably a ten – fold amount of information about terrorism through the Media than there has about climate change; I think that’s quite an interesting statistic.” – Peter Garrett
  • “Terrorism is psychological warfare. Terrorists try to manipulate us and change our behaviour by creating fear, uncertainty, and division in society. The key battleground in the war on terrorism, therefore, is in the minds of the … people.” – Patrick J. Kennedy .
  • “Fighting Terrorism is like being a Goal keeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only one shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.” – Paul Wilkinson .
  • “If you don’t read the newspaper (or don’t watch TV), you are uninformed; If you do read the newspaper (or do watch TV), you are misinformed”. – Mark Twain .
  • “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch (or read) or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity.” – Cicero (106 – 43 BCE)
  • “The (Media) has a breathtaking capacity for over simplifying. Reality is always more complicated.” – Marc Stiegler.
  • “Risk perception is not emotions and reason, or facts and feelings. It’s both, inescapably, down at the very wiring of our brain. Our risk perception is flawed enough to create harm, but it is something society (and Media) can do something about.” – David Ropeick
  • “We do not live in a bad world. It is just that the bad makes news. We need to recognize the good in the world and the extraordinary things ordinary people are doing, and ask the media to present that, even if it needs greater effort from them.” – T. T. Rangarajan.

Key Concepts:

Understanding the effect of media reports – as Marc Stiegler notes –

Statistically, we have never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Yet we worry more than ever. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now with the ‘impossible – to – avoid’ media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

As it is, it is hard to be optimistic because the brain’s filtering architecture is pessimistic by design. Good news is drowned out, because it is in the media’s best interest to over emphasize the bad. – “If it bleeds, it leads”.

It is not just that our evolutionary survival instincts make us believe that ‘the hole we are in is too deep

to climb out of’ but they also limit our desire to even climb out of the hole.

Key Metrics:

To realize the exaggerative effect that the media has, consider the perception versus reality of just the issue of danger from nuclear accidents as an example;

  • Chernobyl incident – The worst nuclear accident in history, when an old nuclear power plant, well beyond its designed life date, went into meltdown due to an unpredictable series of events – 31 deaths in explosion and perhaps, at most, a few thousand more from the effects of radiation in the decades thereafter.
  • Fukushima Daiichi disaster – When an old nuclear power plant nearing its 40 years end of life, was disastrously hit by a once in a thousand years Tsunami caused by an earthquake that measure 9.3 on the Richter scale – 1 death due to a crane accident, 2 sick due to radiation burns and 37 injured but mainly due to the destruction caused by the Tsunami and not due to the meltdown. Future deaths due to radiation are estimated from 0 upto 100, and the extra cancer risk estimated at 1 additional case in every 500 of the people affected.
  • Compare this with the coal industry where in 2007 in China alone there were 3,786 deaths, not including the deaths from pollution etc.
  • Nuclear power looks safer despite the general perception!

“The rate for direct fatalities per unit of energy is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.” – William Saletan – and is even worse for coal.

This then raises questions about the similar exaggerative effect the media has by its way of presenting the perception of Terror incidents.

Key Questions :-

  • Is there a pattern to Terror incidents / strikes and can it make them predictable?
  • How do Terrorists seek to gain maximum impact from the incidents / strikes they implement?
  • Is such impact due to any specific motivation, or cause, or the nature of incident, or number of fatalities?
  • How should the Media cover Terror incidents / strikes and how should the Authorities deal with the Media?


  • Media attention and its efforts to highlight the shock value and exaggerate the threat or consequences to gain more and prolonged TRP’s / Viewership, allow the Terrorists greater recognition and unduly magnify the effect of the incident.

That the Terrorists, who carry out strikes on the unsuspecting, mostly soft Civilian targets, are able to play on the self interests of the Media is generally perceived as true, though ofcourse the Media denies that it can be so manipulated.


The effect of the great advances in technological and communication fields and the rapid changes in the social sphere have led to extraordinary empowerment of even dissatisfied individuals and small groups, enabling them to bring issues to a super critical state where it is easier to trigger extreme events with relatively less effort than in earlier times.

Insurgents / Guerillas target the Security Forces. They become ‘Terrorists’ when

they indiscriminately also target civilians and use the locals as hostages or cover.

Insurgents conduct asymmetric warfare battling a larger and usually better equipped Security Forces, with a loose network of fighters lacking an effective Central Command. They display sudden bursts of activity interspersed between quiet periods, but the attacks still show grouping, which in the absence of a Central Command, seems to be dependent on the expected attention from the Media and other ways of spreading information which could be viewed as being more on days that are linked to specific Anniversaries or Festivals or Functions etc.

Mathematical methodologies usually used to try and understand, the predictive purchasing behaviour of a customer, and that of the Financial Markets have also been applied by many to Terrorist incidents (see “Mathematics of Terror” by Andrew Curry ). Plotting the severity or magnitude of the incident, measured by the number of deaths caused, against the frequency or periodicity of the incident showed a remarkably consistent pattern. A pattern that is reflected across all types of Terrorist incidents even if implemented by very different Terror groups operating over many decades in different Geographical locations.

Groups such as……….

  • The Shining Path Guerrillas of Chile
  • The Red Brigade of Italy
  • The Red Army of Japan
  • The Al Fatah of Palestine / Intifada
  • The Baader Mienhof of Germany
  • The Maoists / Pak sponsored Terrorists in India
  • The Indonesian Rebels
  • The Afghan Taliban
  • The Basques of Spain

The pattern for incidents caused by each of them forms a noticeably similar distribution, answering to a Power Law (exponential) curve instead of the expected normal or Bell curve.

A ‘Power Law’ distribution applies to all non linear phenomenon and implies that truly massive disruptive events like ‘killer storms’, financial collapses, major volcanic eruptions, avalanches, tsunamis, earthquakes or even major terrorist incidents etc – occur exponentially less frequently than small ones. Such distributions are surprisingly ubiquitous in sciences and social sciences and have been intensely studied. The Power Law, and the data and relationships analysis forecasts, though only generally and not specifically, the few rare (Black Swan type) events of extraordinary magnitude. The larger the event the rarer it is – But IT WILL OCCUR SOME TIME!

Such forecasts are only probabilities in a general timeframe, the actual event and its exact time and place cannot be predicted. However even such general forecasts are enough to enable us to be better prepared to respond immediately and appropriately to such events as and when they do occur. As Nicholas N. Taleb writes – “… invest in Preparedness, Plan to mitigate the consequences.”

Such near uniformity of the distribution pattern even across such diverse groups and across decades demonstrates that the differences between them, of Cause, Religion, Culture, Background funding, Motives, Strategies, Equipment and Forces disparity, or Area of Operation etc. all important in their own way and calling for a variety of response, actually seem to have nothing to do with the timing and location or type of incident. They

do not match the distribution pattern.

This then begs the question, if not such factors, then what is it that determines the timing and location or type of incident?

“In guerrilla warfare, what matters most is the ability to shape the story, not the facts on the ground. This is how guerrillas are able to win wars even as they lose battles” – Max Boot

The one common factor that stands out in such a study is the availability or expectation of Media coverage. It is well recognized that Media attention is ‘Oxygen’ to the cause of the Terrorists / Insurgents, but it was till now not generally seen as a factor in the planning of the incident. Up to now it was thought that Media was something to be exploited after the event.

Terrorist or Insurgent Cells are usually small Cells or Groups operating fairly independently of the main body, seeking to obtain maximum impact by their acts. Such impact is measured by the Media attention and the coverage they receive.

As each such Cell operates fairly independently, it is noted that despite their individual efforts to obtain maximum Media exposure many times the coverage for their incident gets lost in the noise of other events or incidents occurring around the same time. Many times the incidents occur in clusters as various groups select common dates or events to launch their strikes without reference to others. Each of such strikes, even if one of them results in more damage than the others, obviously do not receive as much Media attention as do the few outliers that happen to occur in isolation.

This again goes to evidence the importance of the Media for the Terrorists’ objective. It is also noted that the Civil Rights Activists, NGO’s and others sympathetic to their cause, are welcomed as champions of the cause based on their ability to get Media attention for the cause. Once again highlighting the role of the Media.

Awareness of this factor does not allow us to predict the attack but it can definitely allow us to prepare to meet the effects of such incidents and also to plan to reduce the impact of the coverage. Reduce & play down the shock value and disseminate the news in a low key manner. Effective action may need time to play out over and will not answer the Media ‘s clamour for ‘Breaking News’, but such effective action is what is really required to catch and punish the Perpetrators. Trying to meet the need for ‘Breaking News’ only ends up showing the Police & Security Forces, and the Investigating Agencies in poor light, making the Perpetrators seem more competent and professional than they really are.

The impact of the attack is not based on the intensity or number of deaths in the incident, it is purely the nature and extent of the coverage it receives in all the Media. If it was only the number of deaths then many ‘accidents’ should also

have the same or greater impact, which is evidently not the case. After all many more people die or are injured in accidents than in Terror incidents and such major accidents are more common.

Perhaps we should ask our Media to learn from the Israeli Media, which does not highlight Terror incidents as much as our Media does. In fact their ‘Headlines’ and Media, cover the positive incidents of general life much more than the Terrorist incidents which they insist on treating as routinely as our Media does most traffic, rail or other accidents, and are generally reported in the inside pages.

It should also be recognized that repetitive Media coverage creates a sort of feedback loop. It blows up the incident to make it seem of a much greater magnitude, and more likely to happen again, than it should really warrant.

Jason Daley writes in the ‘Discover Magazine’ that – the easier a scenario is to conjecture, the more common and probable we perceive it to be. We also fear man – made risks more than we fear natural ones and tend to believe that events causing dread, – events that could result in particularly painful or gruesome deaths, are perceived to be infinitely more risky than other events. This subjective reaction makes us focus on the one in a million ‘Bogeyman’ while virtually ignoring the true risks that we actually face in the world. In the year following the 9 / 11 attack in the USA, such fear made millions of Americans opt out of air travel, choosing instead to drive to their destinations. These extra cars on the roads increased traffic fatalities by nearly 1600, while air lines had no fatalities. (See annexure for life time risks and consider how you perceive each of them.)

The Media with its overwhelmingly extensive and repetitive coverage of all the gruesome elements of a terrorist event creates a feed back loop that plays on our biases to scream at us that terror incidents / events are a greater and more imminent threat than they really are. This only helps the terrorists in their objective to create fear and dread, and does no particular good to society. TV images form perceptions and many a time such perceptions eclipse reality.

The Media must therefore work with the Authorities at finding a more balanced way to be informative without unnecessarily repetitive visual coverage. Media should ensure that rumours and conjectures are identified as such and misinformation by the Authorities is immediately exposed. At regular intervals they could cover the progress, if any, of the investigation and talk of what can he done to prevent such incidents in future or to identify and catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice without resorting to unnecessary visuals. Reduce the perception error by comparing the risks and talking about the casualties of other accidents and disasters etc.

In today’s times, it is not possible to prevent all Terror incidents, but it is definitely possible to make

it very difficult for their execution and also make it difficult for the perpetrators to get away from the consequences.

The Media has a role to play here in keeping the Public continually, not continuously, informed about the investigation and calling on the Public’s support where applicable. Allow the Investigative Agencies, Police & Security Forces, to systematically do their job and only announce results when they are attained. A fixed schedule of briefing by the Authorities and where necessary, common pooling of the video coverage, would be better than the disruptive ‘FIRST ME’ attitude of today’s reportage.

The Media also has the responsibility not to allow too much importance to be given to a Terror incident, allowing it to build up a greater fear and anxiety in the Public’s mind than actually warranted by the incident. Once again, how much coverage do they give for accidents that are so much more frequent and that cause as many or more fatalities and grievous injuries?

In dealing with the Media the Authorities must see them as a necessary connection to the Public and strive to work with them to use their reach. They also must;

  • Manage expectations – Be cautious and measured in announcing progress. Note what has been accomplished, but also acknowledge what still needs to be done. Avoid premature declarations of success. Ensure all are aware of your assessments and recognize that any counter terrorism operation has innumerable challenges and that progress is likely to be slow.
  • Be First with the truth – Get accurate information of significant activities to your chain of Command, to the Government Authorities, and even, when & where appropriate (without compromising the operation), to the Media, as soon as is possible, even when new facts contradict the old. Untidy truth is better than smooth lies that unravel in the end anyway. Beat the insurgents / terrorists to the headlines, and pre-empt rumours. Integrity is critical to this fight. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, and then state what has been learnt and how to respond. Hold the Media (and yourselves) accountable for accuracy, characterization, and context. Avoid spin and misinformation as subsequent revelations may discredit it and thus lead to erosion of the Public’s trust. Let the facts speak for themselves. Challenge any disinformation. Turn the terrorist’s ideologies and indiscriminate violence against them. In this Information Age, where 60% of the War is information, we need the right people to be able to talk to the Media without being afraid of stepping on some other Authority’s toes.
  • Fight the information war relentlessly – Realize that we are in a struggle which in the end will be won or lost in the perception of the people. Every action taken by the Terrorists / Insurgents and by the Forces / Police Authorities has implications in the Public arena. Develop and sustain a narrative that works and continually drive the themes home through all forms of Media.
  • Understand the Social Media, which is today an exponentially growing way of communication, demonstrating a rapid and effective opinion making capacity. The Authorities must learn to work with, and harness this media in positive ways and prevent its misuse by the terrorists for inculcation or recruitment (eg: ISIS).

Risk communication cannot totally close the perception gap, the difference between our fears and facts, but it can help.

And as General Colin Powell advises, when talking to the media remember:-

  • Don’t discuss options – you do not have answer every question put to you. They get to ask the questions, but you get to pick the answers. Shape your answer to the millions who would later be watching the TV, not to the one who is asking the question.
  • Just tell what happened. Don’t crawl. People want to share your confidence, however thin, not your turmoil, however real. Never let them see you sweat.


Media coverage is ‘oxygen’ to the insurgents/terrorists. They manipulate the Media and sympathetic NGO’s into getting greater and repetitive coverage to exaggerate the effect of the incident.

Media must recognize this and work with the Authorities to convey the story factually and with the right perspective to the public.


A guide to the threat perception and what it really is. How you will die? – Measurement of life – time risk for a person in USA, by the US National Safety Council!

Total any cause – 1 in 1 (everyone dies!)

1 Heart Disease 1 in 6 14 Fire arm discharge 1 in 6,309
2 Cancer 1 in 7 15 Air transport accident 1 in 7, 032
3 Stroke 1 in 28 16 Electrocution 1 in 9,943
4 Motor vehicle accident 1 in 88 17 Heat exposure 1 in 12, 517
5 Intentional Self harm 1 in 112 18 Cataclysmic storm 1 in 46, 044
6 Accidental poisoning by, or exposure to, noxious substances  


1 in 130

19 Bee / Hornet / Wasp sting 1 in 71, 623
7 Falls 1 in 171 20 Legal execution 1 in 96, 691
8 Car occupant accident 1 in 303 21 Dog attack 1 in 1, 20, 864
9 Associate by Fire arm 1 in 306 22 Earth Quake or other earth movement 1 in 1, 48, 756
10 Pedestrian accident 1 in 649 23 Flood 1 in 1, 75, 803
11 Motor cycle accident 1 in 770 24 Fireworks 1 in 3, 86, 766
12 Fire 1 in  1777 25 Shark attack 1 in 39, 43, 110
13 Bicycle accident 1 in  4717 26 Terror incident 1 in 93,00, 000


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