The acting Director of Defense Information, Colonel Rabi Abubakar, recently called on the Nigerian press to stop giving Boko Haram “the kind of publicity they are giving them” because it “keeps them going.” According to Col Abubakar, denying the terrorists media exposure will weaken them and ultimately lead to their defeat. Somehow, it all sounded so familiar…
And indeed it was. In December 2012 the then-Director-General of the Department of State Security, Mr Ekpenyong Ita, urged the media to refrain from sensationalising reports of terrorist attacks and to give the activities of security agencies adequate coverage as well. And then about a year ago the former Minister of Information, Mr Labaran Maku, also spoke out on the issue, accusing the media of encouraging Boko Haram through the reporting of its activities. According to the former minister, “editors are just too happy to make headline of the terrorists bomb explosion, forgetting that the more you give them headline the more they are energized because that is all they need to remain in business. If you black them out of the news for six months, they will feel frustrated.”
Mr Maku’s statement is the pick of the bunch. He is no longer in a position to affect this discussion, but it is still pertinent to note that his recommendation that the media self-impose a 6 month blackout of all Boko Haram activities is one that would be not only difficult to enforce, but could possibly backfire spectacularly.
Anyway, these calls for the media to take an active role in the information and psychological war does make sense in some ways. Studies have shown that there is something of a symbiotic relationship between the media and organisations that employ terrorism as a strategy. In fact recent research has shown that extensive coverage of terrorist attacks tends to mean that more attacks will follow, something of a ripple effect. They also discuss how the reporting of suicide bombings has made that type of attack even more frequent.
“We took a great interest in the press. We always immediately looked how the newspapers, especially in Berlin, reacted to our actions, and how they explained them, and thereupon we defined our strategy.” – Michael “Bommi” Baumann, co-founder Movement 2 June
The Media’s Role
The media business is, in the end, a business and therefore needs to make money in order to stay in business. And with the proliferation of more news sources; from TV channels, to cable TV, to radio stations, and internet news sites that seem to spring up by the dozen, competition is fierce. In order to keep the audience, then, media houses try to be the first to report, with more detail than their competitors and gripping headlines. It is this fact that the terrorist organisations exploit in their bid to gain public attention by cooking up ever more nefarious acts which will obviously be widely reported. And when a terrorist act is so dastardly that all the media houses carry it, with varying degrees of sensationalism, and harp on about it for days or weeks after, it can lead to what is commonly called agenda setting, which is the idea that the more a certain topic or piece of news is reported and repeated over and again, it leads the public to imagine that it is more important than any other piece of news.
The second problem, from the authorities’ point of view, would be framing; the presentation of news and facts in such a way as to drive a certain belief/viewpoint. In our case, the framing would appear to be that the terrorists are able to freely attack where they please, and the security agencies are hapless reactionaries who cannot adequately protect us.
If I am right, and those are the concerns of the authorities, then I think they have begun taking steps in the right direction. First, Col Abubakar’s statement came across as a mild rebuke, rather than a full accusation as had been done in the past. In his words, “Information in any military activity is important. We are trying to chart a new course for information flow in our various operations being carried out by the Nigerian armed forces.” The admission that information plays a key role is a good one. The people not only want to be informed, but also have a right to be. In the past, you might shackle the newspapers, or indeed seize all copies after printing, and send armed men into radio and television stations and it would have a significant impact on reporting of events. But these days it is not quite so straightforward anymore and so the decision to be more open and informative is a welcome one.
And it seems they are beginning with a proactive approach, as we are now hearing news of suspects being arrested, planned attacks being foiled and the like. And they need to keep up this level of engagement with members of the press, if they want to have the upper hand in the information war. Col Abubakar also urged the media to crosscheck facts with the military before publishing, which is fair enough. Having regular engagement with the press would create a direct conduit through which information can flow back and forth, further enabling the military to get its point across. The new military command seems to be taking this to heart, as a report of the Chief of Army Staff’s sleepover in Gamboru, Borno state, made mention of a group of reporters also making the trip alongside the general. Previously, the media seemed to be persona non grata, but now they are actively being courted.
So that’s it, then?
Not quite. The truth is that, despite some unfortunate phrasing on the part of past government officials, the authorities do have a point regarding media coverage of terrorist incidents. Online media is particularly guilty of sensationalist headlines in a bid to draw more clicks, which leads to better advertising revenues and a more handsome profile. For better or worse, the proliferation of online news sites means that it is pretty much out of anyone’s control too.
Because the real issue is not in what the media reports, but how it does so. Obviously, agenda setting is a real danger that editors have to keep an eye out for. But aside from the sensationalist headlines helping to set agendas in public opinion, the way stories and reports are framed is a also little bit off. It has been awhile since I have heard of Boko Haram claiming responsibility and yet every time there is an attack, their name is mentioned. Sadly, there is more than one group which uses terrorist tactics in Nigeria, so attributing every single attack to BH may not be factually accurate. It is also worth considering that terrorist groups have been known to even claim attacks which they had no hand in, because successful attacks tend to raise a group’s profile. Even though the media are careful to not attribute responsibility to BH, but rather frame it with statements like “no group has claimed responsibility but Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria, has used similar tactics in the past.” The first problem with that statement is that it mentions only one possible group as perpetrator, thus inadvertently declaring them the sole candidates. Secondly,the “similar tactics” that they refer to are usually other attacks, similar in nature, but which were never claimed by any group (as far as I have heard) but were also assumed to be the work of BH. This creates a kind of cycle of responsibility attribution that, at its root, appears to be based almost solely on conjecture.
Another aspect of framing is as regards the choice of words. It is a difficult one because, while most journalists would prefer to just report the news, the fact is that certain words carry certain connotations and certain terms convey different meanings, even when you don’t necessarily intend them to. The decision of whether or not to term an organisation as a “terrorist group” is an obvious one, though that does not make it any less difficult. Another interesting one is whether a killing is labeled as a “beheading” or “cutting off his head”. They are technically similar, and yet radically different. A beheading gives a sense of a quick and (supposedly) painless killing, somewhat akin to the infamous guillotine, while cutting off someone’s head leaves the impression of a gruesome and painful process. Which do you use and when?
Now think about when you read breaking news reports of terrorist attacks. Sometimes, they say “a bomb has exploded in [location]. Casualties are yet unknown. More later…” A report like that says a few things. First of all, that the media house (for want of a better word) wants to be the first to report the incident, hence the incredibly short report of something that they yet know little about. Secondly, the mention of casualties even before it is known whether or not there have been any indicates that they believe (rightly or wrongly) that we are desperate to hear casualty figures, which is a significant part of the infotainment value. The final sentence is there more or less as a hook, to let you know that they will continue to update the information as they get it, so watch this space. It is no longer the case that the story needs to develop before being reported. One could argue that a more responsible media house would report it as “an explosion has occurred at [location]. Details are currently scarce, as this is a developing story, but anyone around that area would be advised to keep clear until more information is available.”
Unfortunately, avoiding framing can be a little difficult because it would rather water down the entertainment value for the audience. And make no mistake, “infotainment” is a very real thing indeed. Psychologist Frederick J Hacker argued that terrorism has become a form of mass entertainment and, looking over the current landscape, it is difficult to argue. The next time you see a headline regarding an atrocious terrorist attack, before you click the link, buy the newspaper or tune to the channel, ask yourself “am I doing this out of a desire to be informed, or to be entertained?” Another angle to this is that news organisations have to consider very carefully whether to use any footage released by terrorist groups in their reports, but social media gets flooded with them anyway, and some of us actively seek out videos of beheadings and the like. Even when you’re not quite looking for them, they show up in your news feed or are forwarded to you by friends.
“We would throw roses, if it would work, instead of bombs.” – Palestine Liberation Organisation member
Does our desire for casualty figures influence the determination of terrorists to constantly seek to raise those numbers in order to get our attention and, dare I say it, entertain us? It’s a difficult question with no simple answer. One thing is certain though; the media have a duty to report, we have the right to be informed, and the terrorists are just loving it.