Volume 51, Issue 3: Summer 2017

Media’s formulaic approach to terror attacks ignores roots of violence

Photo from Public Domain

In Canada, thanks to saturation coverage in mainstream and social media, mention of the June 3 terrorist attacks on London Bridge will forever call up the innocent face of 30-year-old Christine Archibald, of Castlegar, B.C. She died, we were told over and over, on the bridge in her fiancé’s arms. Her family added to the poignancy of her death, telling media she had a heart big enough for everyone, and would not have understood the violence that snatched away her life. Subsequent reports exploited every detail of her Canadian goodness, but skipped lightly over her bewilderment of terrorist behaviour as unimportant.

A more meaningful media tribute to this deeply sympathetic victim would have been a pause, some thought given to a radical change of direction in Canadian coverage of terrorism. As it is, Christine Archibald serves as a reminder that 16 years after 9/11 — a full generation — media appear to have learned nothing about their role as war whisperers, unofficial accomplices to terror and terrorism.

Coverage of terrorist attacks is so formulaic in 2017 that reporters, if asked, could certainly write a story without an actual event. It would have the sophistication of a puppet show in the town square. The victims, of course, would be European or western allies. There would be fine details of weapons, injuries, trauma, shattered witnesses and mourners and deranged hoodlums as perpetrators: innocence overcome by evil. The template would include inane remarks without context or analysis, such as the messages offered by London Mayor Sadiq Kahn and British Prime Minister Theresa May on June 4. Shock and Outrage. Enough is Enough. We Will Not Surrender Our Values. Etc.

As damaging as these stale responses and messages are, the messages missing from media are a greater threat, and represent what Paul Rogers, noted British author of Why We’re Losing the War on Terrorism calls “lidism.” The media’s actual job, apparently, is to keep the lid on and avoid confronting the real problems inherent in this “never-ending war.”

Postmedia’s Toronto Sun leads Canadian media (the Toronto Star occasionally excepted) in slavishly following the American model, which separates “low tech” terrorism from the Bush war on terror initiated after 9/11. The perpetrators are not seen as victims who are mimicking the indifference to violence, suffering and sorrow displayed by the U.S. and its perceived allies. Radio, newspapers and social media amplify their rampages, even in the face of western airstrikes on schools, hospitals or weddings in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of human beings as innocent and beloved as Christine Archibald are routinely incinerated.

As Amy Goodman and Tariq Ali have recently pointed out, media ought to personalize all victims of the war on terror equally. The numbers, however explain why that is ludicrously impossible. Estimates vary, but suggest the war on terror has claimed between three and four million lives since its initiation in 2001. Where to begin?

These ingrained media patterns have consequences. Endless exposure to acts of apparently senseless brutality encourages helplessness and a bias toward immediate action, any action. This converts easily to support for military solutions to political problems.

The Geneva Convention’s definition of war crimes includes encouraging willful killing or causing great suffering or serious injury to the body or health of others. Of their coverage of the war on terror and its victims, Canadian media ought to be asking themselves the question: Are we there yet?

Lesley Hughes is a media skills trainer, speaker, and award-winning journalist.

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