Media's Use of Term "Terrorism"
Generally Loaded Ideologically
Televising "Terrorism:" Political
Violence in Popular Culture
Schlesinger, Graham Murdock and Philip Elliott
Comedia Publishing Group, 181 pages, $10.95.
Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker
The words "terrorism" and "terrorist" are potent.
Many readers and viewers virtually stop thinking rationally when
the news media fire these words into their brains. I'm judging by
reactions I see and hear at my office, among my neighbours and at
That's why I find it terrifying I use the word advisedly
that the media seem all too indiscriminating in using these
Just a couple of examples. The country's largest radio station.
CFRB in Toronto, devoted a minute and 30 seconds to the first
item on its top-rated (300,000-plus listeners) 8 a.m. news program
March 26th last. The item was about the nomination of the president
of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party association to run
in the provincial Eglinton riding.
A remarkable 43 seconds of this item almost a tenth of the
total newscast were devoted to a claim that the Liberals
and NDP were engaging in "terror tactics" by distributing
certain literature to tenants in Eglinton riding, literature which
said the Tories were less than enthusiastic about rent controls.
The Globe and Mail did not even mention this politician's
word inflation in its account of the same meeting the same morning
and the Toronto Star devoted exactly 12 words to the hyperbole.
A much more serious inflation dominated the country's headlines
and tv and radio newscasts in late March and early April. Down to
the last major outlet from coast to coast so far as I know, the
media emblazoned before the populace that "Armenian terrorists"
were threatening (to quote Knowlton Nash off the top of The National's
April 2 cast) "to blow up the Toronto subway system."
Whatever would be discovered subsequently, during the full week
of the scare, no journalist had more on which to base this frightening
allegation than a police statement. Police had in their possession
an anonymous letter containing the threat ostensibly signed by a
purported group, which group if it existed was called
the "Armenian Secret Army (etc.)" and which, if it existed, might or might not contain one or more Armenians.
Most of the coverage was irresponsible in the extreme in its leaping
to unsupportable judgments, its failure to qualify and its failure
Yet serious as these criticisms are, they do not exhaust the problems
with this kind of journalism, as Televising "Terrorism"
points out so clearly.
This British book (the Europeans have been living with "terror"
longer than Canadians) should be "must" reading for Canadian
reporters and editors.
Journalists will welcome the authors' firm rejection of censorship
in connection with reporting political violence. Some "counter
insurgency experts" (one was featured on The Journal's program
about media coverage of political violence) recommend blacking out
"terrorists' threats and terrorists' demands" because
"it just gives them publicity which is exactly what they are
There does not seem to be ineffable logic behind the repressive
generalization that what desperate people want they should always be denied. On the
practical level there is a great deal of evidence that political
violence is not extinguished through news of it being blacked out;
rather the reverse is generally true. Lack of recognition leads
to greater frustration and often greater violence.
The authors also find virtually no evidence of any contagion effect,
sometimes called "copy cat crime."
What they do find is an alarming tendency for the media to accept
state definitions of "terrorist" and "terrorism"
(hence their placing "terrorism" within quotation marks
in the title of their book).
They point to a double standard in the labelling of "terrorists."
"Terrorism" and "terrorist" are
terms which look straightforward, but actually they are shot through
with contradictions. When is an action "terroristic" and
when are its perpetrators "terrorists?" Once we pose
these questions it becomes obvious that the response depends upon
our values. The term "terrorist" as opposed to "guerilla,"
"freedom fighter" or "member of the resistance"
implies that a given action is illegitimate and merits a condemnation
as criminal behavior.
The authors note that self-styled "terrorism experts"
are widely sought out and quoted uncritically by the media, and
that most of these "experts" put forward ideologically-laden
definitions of terrorism that favour the state.
These "experts" who themselves should be questioned
much more critically by the media generally promote a bundle of views the authors find
very flimsy. One is that all or most "terrorists" are
part of an international network. Some go further and suggest this
alleged international conspiracy is directed by the Soviet Union,
even though a simpleton can see that the Soviet Union could only
lose heavily were it to support high profile murders and bombings.
One of these "experts" named is none other than Maurice
Tugwell who currently peddles his views out of The University of
New Brunswick. "Maurice Tugwell, a former paratroop colonel
who was head of the 'Information Policy' department which conducted
'psychological warfare' in Northern Ireland, has . . . singled out
what he calls the 'Vietnam Syndrome,' " the authors note. According
to Tugwell, the Americans were in Vietnam only to "counter
violence" and the media were "subversive" in causing
"revolutionaries" to "bask in the warmth of public
admiration" to the "satisfaction of radicals and many
The authors of Televising "Terrorism" point out
that not only do the media favour the Tugwell version of the world,
the media overlook by far the worst agents of "Wholesale"
terrorism: rightwing military dictatorships warmly supported by
the United States.
One of their many sources is a 1982 American study of coverage on
the three American tv networks over a two year period. The study
found that "television packages stories about terrorism into
'roundups' (which tend to create) the general impression that terrorism
is widespread around the world. This magnifies the importance of
left-wing anti-state, terrorism whereas right-wing terrorism and
repressive state actions in countries friendly to the U.S. are almost
The authors conclude in reference to British tv and I think
Canadian tv may be somewhat like the British in this respect
that the most important measure for judging media handling of "terrorism"
is the degree to which it is "open" or "closed."
"Open" coverage allows for a variety of opinions about
the "terrorism" to be expressed. The authors find the
most closed coverage to be news, and the most open the documentary.
And they argue for a "resolute defence of public service broadcasting
as the best way of defending and extending the present range of
information and debate on 'terrorism' . . . and indeed the whole
range of broadcasting output."
In this I think the authors' conclusions apply equally to Canada.
Barrie Zwicker is publisher and editor of SOURCES.
Published in Sources, Summer 1985
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