Did the News Produce Terror?

A story on CNN International today discusses the influence of non-stop coverage of the Mumbai incident and asks if wall-to-wall coverage contributed to prolonged terror and created “celebrity terrorists.”

The terrorists had sufficient explosives to do more damage in a shorter time, the story reports, but speculates they took more time and extended the terror–even took hostages but made no demands–because media coverage advanced their aims, among which were to impress upon the public their ability to wreak havoc.

While it didn’t occur to me that the coverage was creating celebrity for the terrorists, it did seem, as I watched in sleepless jet lag in Geneva, that frequent references to “baby-faced gunmen smiling as they sprayed bullets” along with produced packages of graphics and repeated video loops framed the occupation of the Taj Hotel in manner almost surreal.

At times the intro to live coverage seemed indistinguishable from promos for upcoming documentary coverage. I found myself tuning out when the promotion of an upcoming program on genocide and another promo on CNN’s global news coverage of disasters appeared.

As compelling as events were in Mumbai, this framing coupled with CNN’s ever-present split screen text crawls of other stories actually diminished coverage for me.

The crux of the CNN story, however, is a question: Did extended live coverage provide a platform for the terrorists to manipulate public opinion? And further, did this platform lead terrorists to extend the occupation, engage in even more carnage over time and behave in ways to hold the attention of media?

This raises other questions. How media savvy were the terrorists? Were they effective in manipulating the media to achieve their own ends?  Did wall-to-wall coverage, however unintentionally, involve journalists in the story as enablers, even contribute to it?

As the post-mortem of Mumbai occurs, the role of media should be a significant part of the examination. The answers will not be simple or clear. The solution is not censorship. Management of media as practiced by the U.S. government in Iraq is not exactly the model, either. Mumbai will surely foster much serious discussion about how such events will be covered in the future.

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