Complaints that news coverage of terrorist attacks generally fails to give much idea of context – i.e. the longer history, the grievances, the circumstances that led to the bloodshed – are by and large justified and the complaints ensure that that particular context is at least mentioned. There is, however, another context which tends to be utterly ignored. Terrorist attacks exist not only in the context of their particular struggle but also in the context of terrorism itself – i.e. its history, the many organisations, their methods, successes and failures.
In order to appreciate concerns about the neglect of context, it is necessary to mention “framing”. News is a product created by media workers and all news stories are told within a frame chosen by those workers. They might decide to relate an event as good news or as bad news. An easy example would be the reporting of increased numbers of air travellers; this could be framed as good news for the tourist industry or it could be framed as bad news for the environment. News staff decide how it will be told, framed. Looking to the audience, the citizen who wants full information in order to form a considered viewpoint wants all frames, while the citizen with little interest in public affairs would like it kept simple.
Another choice when it comes to frames is whether to relate events as isolated episodes or as events in a much larger theme. In the early 1990s Shanto Iyengar argued that for the most part news stories are presented as unconnected events – episodes – rather than as incidents best understood in a longer process or theme. This, he argues, depoliticises them – prevents their being the subject of effective political controversy.* News reduces great controversies to a series of anecdotes, e.g. the likes of inequality might be reduced to isolated stories about poverty.
So too with the reporting of terrorism, the complaint is that it is reduced to stories of carnage ripped out of their political context, or – as Iyengar would put it – episodic framing is preferred to thematic framing. The citizen with little interest in politics is served at the expense of the thoughtful, participative citizen.
Journalists, presenters, researchers, editors, producers etc. are of course well aware of the choices to be made and sometimes decide to place events in context often in a longer special report or even a current affairs programme. Almost inevitably, the choice is to place the attack or series of attacks in the context of the struggle from which they emerged. While this is an enormous service to the thoughtful citizen – one which may have commercial consequences as less interested citizens tune out – something is still missing: that other neglected context of terrorist attacks.
When media staff decide to place current attacks in context, they usually opt again for a degree of isolation that limits political discussion. That is to say, a terrorist attack or campaign is seldom considered in the context of decades of similar attacks and campaigns mounted by different groups in different countries. Recent Jihadi attacks are treated as new and unprecedented when the reality is that they are part of a recurring and developing tradition stretching back decades into the twentieth century.
This is not the place to develop a history of terrorism. Suffice it to say that adequate consideration of the latest terrorist attack or campaign of attacks depends as much on understanding their commonality with earlier attacks and campaigns as it does on understanding their particular context. Putting it more plainly but provocatively, the context to Jihadi attacks on Western civilians includes the IRA and others.
This is where it gets controversial and where something akin to censorship appears. There are people – almost certainly the majority of people – who would regard such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity and who would want perpetrators, commanders and facilitators hunted and brought before the courts. There are also people who are selective, who think that targeting civilians is sometimes justified. Now should anyone but especially a producer of media present jihadi atrocities in the context of earlier struggles, those selective citizens will go ape. They will demand a degree of censorship; they will demand that coverage of terrorist attacks never be framed in a context which includes the killings of which they approve. It would take brave journalism to defy them.
* During the 1980s Shanto Iyengar analysed US coverage of socio-political issues – poverty, unemployment, crime – and found that news was biased towards events rather than their context. He labelled the difference “episodic framing” as opposed to “thematic framing”. The former reduced complex issues to anecdotes and hindered public understanding of controversial issues. (Shanto Iyengar, Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues, University Of Chicago Press, 1994)