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:
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.
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;
“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 :-
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 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;
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:-
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 in 6
|Fire arm discharge
|1 in 6,309
|1 in 7
|Air transport accident
|1 in 7, 032
|1 in 28
|1 in 9,943
|Motor vehicle accident
|1 in 88
|1 in 12, 517
|Intentional Self harm
|1 in 112
|1 in 46, 044
|Accidental poisoning by, or exposure to, noxious substances
1 in 130
|Bee / Hornet / Wasp sting
|1 in 71, 623
|1 in 171
|1 in 96, 691
|Car occupant accident
|1 in 303
|1 in 1, 20, 864
|Associate by Fire arm
|1 in 306
|Earth Quake or other earth movement
|1 in 1, 48, 756
|1 in 649
|1 in 1, 75, 803
|Motor cycle accident
|1 in 770
|1 in 3, 86, 766
|1 in 1777
|1 in 39, 43, 110
|1 in 4717
|1 in 93,00, 000
– JAI HIND! –