On Terrorism and the Role of Journalists

Sophia Zhu ‘18
Assistant Opinions Editor

Terrorism has been one of the most frequently discussed topics in recent news. The outrageous and horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad have led to a rising wave of fear and a ripple effect that has stirred up distrust of and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and immigrants.

Terrorist activities never cease, but a major attack reminds the public of the lingering threat of terrorism, elevating the issue to the level of crisis. Immediately after any potential attack, journalists have to deal with a dilemma: news reports may benefit the terrorists by serving their primary goal of making the public panic, but as guardians of freedom, journalists are not supposed to sacrifice their independence for the sake of national security. The issue of terrorism is thus a major challenge facing today’s political journalists.

Recent escalating terrorist attacks attracted the attention of the media all over the world. It is journalists’ duty to reflect the severity of a threat that deserves major public attention, but they should also be aware that media can be utilized by the terrorists to promote their interests. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, Americans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future as the percentage of people who believe that the “best days are behind us” has grown from 38 percent to 49 percent over the last three years. The anxiety about terrorism largely contributed to this decline in confidence. In order to foil the terrorists’ scheme, an obvious counter strategy would be limiting the coverage on terrorist attacks and downplaying the magnitude of the crisis.

However, the target of the terrorism is not just individuals’ sense of security, but also the political system that safeguards our collective achievements. If government restriction or journalists’ self-censorship affects the independence and freedom of news outlets, a real disaster can follow. If terrorists manage to weaken the democratic system, our current happiness and prosperity will also be jeopardized. Admittedly, blasting the public with clusters of negative news on terrorism can lead to excessive fear, but it is important to avoid giving up freedom of press and expression solely because of a looming threat of terrorism.

While this conundrum of journalists’ role in reporting terrorism has yet to be fully solved, there is no doubt that the media should always be cautious about the messages they disseminate. Journalists should hold an objective attitude at all times rather than sensationalize a story in the pursuit of newsworthiness; disproportionate coverage of terrorist attacks can distort people’s perception of the real situation, stimulating irrational and meaningless infighting and discrimination against a particular religious or ethnic group.

Journalists should also adopt a global viewpoint and give equal attention to non-Western nations that could be experiencing even more severe terrorism, so as to give the public a correct notion of the grand scheme of worldwide terrorist attacks. Facing the salient issue of spreading terrorism, journalists should be honest and courageous messengers and also note their roles as the guardians of the democratic system and journalistic values.

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