Terror in the new media age. Is all the coverage good for us?

I have and will continue to refrain from discussing the details of yesterday’s despicable bombing attack in Boston. We don’t know who did it or why, and media coverage is doing little except stoking fear and misinformation.

What I’m pondering, as an observer and participant in media, is the intersection of media and terrorism in our age of instant news and social networks. Watching the news, reading Facebook, and following Twitter the last 36 hours, I’m left to ponder a difficult question: Must terrorist acts inflict large numbers of casualties to be effective?

There is little chance that an act of death and destruction perpetrated by foreign or domestic terrorists could bring our country to its knees. However, how we react to such an event could. Yesterday it was reported the United States has indeed tortured people after 9/11. According to Reuters, the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment investigation found:

“It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the 11-member task force, assembled by the nonpartisan Constitution Project think tank, said in their 577-page report.

The scathing critique of methods used under the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush also sharpened the focus on the plight of inmates at Guantanamo, which Bush opened and his Democratic successor has failed to close.

Obama banned abusive interrogation techniques such as waterboarding when he took office in early 2009, but the widely condemned military prison at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba has remained an object of condemnation by human rights advocates.

Following the media coverage the last 24 hours closely, one can see how the fear behind these actions becomes possible. We are bombarded with graphic and disturbing images while talking heads describe how dangerous the world is, how people should avoid crowds, and how any event could become a target.

The media seems completely oblivious to the impact they are having in the populace, at the same time amplifying the message of terror these attacks are designed to convey. To me this prompts a thought experiment; what if no one covered these events? If the media reported it, then moved on, would terror attacks be as effective?

And as I talked about here, our society doesn’t do well evaluating real versus perceived threats. Ross Pomeroy puts it this way:

In the last decade, you’d be hard-pressed to go one day without hearing about it. However, as Reason‘s Ronald Bailey wrote in 2011, an American’s chances of being killed by a terrorist are approximately one in 20 million. Heck, even if all of the thwarted terrorist attacks over the last 10 years were carried out, that still would translate to a risk of one in 1.7 million. Compare that to an infinitely more dangerous activity you may undertake every morning: climbing into a car. The annual risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash is one in 19,000.

I can’t say enough about the people at the race, the staff, the emergency personal, police, fire fighters, doctors, and nurses who showed all the good humanity is capable of.  Terrorist attacks, or the subsequent media coverage, should not cause us to live in fear. We are too good for that.


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