RE: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Wed Oct 03 2001 - 12:41:52 BST

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    From: Vincent Campbell <>
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    Subject: RE: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper
    Date: Wed, 3 Oct 2001 12:41:52 +0100 
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    Hi Paul,

    I won't bother with my usual response to this, as everyone on the list knows
    my position by know as to the 'media prompted suicide contagion' theory (for
    newbies check the archives, basically it's a simplistic media effects model
    based or correlations, not demonstrated causal relationships, long since
    rejected by most media studies academics, if not by many psychologists who
    in the area of the media continually lag behind in their theoretical
    understanding of the media).

    Instead, I wanted to comment on your normative point at the end, which is
    indicative of the problem of blaming the media for such actions (or for
    subsequent actions after extensive media coverage of such an event), and of
    state institutions efforts to control the media (the CDC should be no more
    trusted than any other state bosy in this regard).

            <So how can the risk of copycat terrorism involving murder-suicides
    > reduced? Blanket censorship is obviously not a realistic option in a free
    > and democratic society. However, our reaction to such events could be
    > usefully informed by the practical and realistic recommendations of the US
    > CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and similar organisations
    > on how to contain and reduce the risk of contagion involving suicide (CDC
    > 1994):
    > - Avoid presenting the event as an accomplishment; for example, do not use
    > the term 'successful'
    > - Avoid repetitious or excessive reporting of the event
    > - Avoid sensationalising the event
    > - Avoid `how-to' descriptions of the event
    > - Avoid portraying the event as painless for those responsible
    > - Avoid presenting simplistic explanations for the event
    > - Avoid glorifying the event or those responsible for it
    > - Avoid giving a positive rationale for those responsible for the event
    > A quick glance at these recommendations reveals that each and everyone has
    > been violated by politicians and media alike in recent days: Repetitious
    > and
    > sensationalised accounts of an event portrayed as horribly effective in
    > aim
    > and simple in explanation. As a consequence of our own reactions, borne
    > perhaps of a voyeuristic and morbid fascination for disaster, we may have
    > increased the likelihood of copycat terrorism. The equally sensationalist
    > accounts of a possible war may only serve to exacerbate this risk.>
            What you are talking about here is censorship, and is illegitimate.
    In what way is it inaccurate for news media to refer to the attacks as
    'successful' (and I don't recall that being a term bandied about anyway)?
    Did the attack result in killing thousands of people as presumably planned?
    Did the attack generate feelings of terror in many Americans, and many
    others around the world? There is a need for reporting of events, accurate
    and non-sensational I'd agree (and indeed most commentaries on the British
    press' early coverage of the attacks was very positive, although they've
    been lapsing into jingoism and scare-mongering more recently), but reporting
    these attacks as "successful" would be accurate on any number of grounds.

            What cannot occur, however, is attempts to shape the agenda of the
    news on the basis of a spurioius association between media coverage and
    copycatting. People do not become a suicide bomber because they saw it on
    TV, but because of socio-political, economic, cultural and psychological
    factors. For many of the rest of us, the news media remain our only means
    of getting access, however distorted, to world events like these and
    restricting the media further than they are already restricted by state
    manipulation and market forces is abhorrent.

            I do not recall a spate of suicidal pilots in the wake of the
    kamikaze pilots of WWII in subsequent wars or in terrorist attacks. Indeed,
    are these attacks not the only example since WWII of the use of planes in
    this way, and certainly the first ever use of civilian planes in this way?

            Repeat attacks of a similar kind are possible because the attack
    worked, and because the military actions of the coalition may provoke a
    response in kind. The Taleban have an iron grip on the news media in
    Afghanistan, so none of the people there have seen or heard the western news
    media coverage, and many don't even know what happened, only that the
    Americans may attack, because that's all they've been told. If muslims in
    the West end up trying similar acts, might it not be because of abuse and
    assaults they have suffered in the past and are suffering now, in the wake
    of these attacks? If other groups or individuals in the West try to copy
    these attacks- do we assume them to have been "normal" people in advance of
    the media coverage disinhibited to commit acts of mass terrorism by CNN or
    whoever? It doesn't make sense, and doesn't make sense because it doesn't
    happen. Copycatting on the extremely rare occasions it does occur, is
    committed by the psychologically disturbed, and if we structure our media on
    that basis, we may as well all be locked in jail because we might murder
    somebody one day.

    > <Of course, there is an urgent need to discuss how we tackle terrorism in
    > a
    > world where technology and connectivity allows tiny minorities massive
    > leverage, but perhaps it is now time for a qualitative shift away from the
    > sensationalist coverage of the `what', `where', `when' and `who', and
    > towards a more informed discussion of the `why'. Only by understanding the
    > situation that led to the attacks can we hope to move towards an informed
    > solution that may help prevent them from occurring again.>
            I agree with the more general point here, but censorship, either
    through regulation or self-censorship is not the answer. When the media are
    already restricted in so many ways, what is needed is more freedom not less,
    combined with media education- teaching people media literacy so that people
    have the critical ability to assess media coverage without being mislead.
    In fact the vast majority of people develop this from early childhood
    through persistent exposure to the mass media, so the notion of highly
    gullible and manipulable audiences is a myth.

            A better, but less cosmetic and PR friendly, solution is for the
    political authorities to deal with the grievances that many people have,
    taking away the factors much more likely to play a causal role on actions
    such as these. But no, particularly with this current British government,
    the preference seems to be for PR friendly but inconsequential measures (in
    terms of the causes of problems) that impinge on civil liberties like ID
    cars to stop terrorism, or curfews to stop child crime. Similarly, fiddling
    with media coverage does nothing about the causes of such crimes, and only
    limits further what little media freedom exists.


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