[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

Rosbalt, June 6, 2004

The Media and Terrorism

By Alexander Alekseev, Rosbalt Information Agency
Translated by David M. Thomas

It is often said the mass media plays into the hands of terrorists, covering in detail their acts of terrorism. On the other hand, informational limitations can turn into a complete absence of reliable information and a loss of the media's independence.

Last week Rosbalt Information Agency hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic 'Mass Media and Terrorism-How to Break This Dangerous Connection?' The roundtable, organized as a forum of 'The Psychology and Psychopathology of Terrorism', gathered journalists, psychologists, and sociologists in an effort to discern whether the media can remain true to its professional purposes and not become an unwilling 'tool' of terror or a 'cog' in the government machine.

Bad News

There has long been discussion over how to inform society about terrorist acts, or even whether to inform society at all. The hostage siege at the Dubrovka Theatre Centre on October 23, 2002 stands as perhaps the time when we all began to ask ourselves if the mass media was acting correctly in such situations. In any case, from that moment on, most of society began to really ask the question of how journalists should respond to acts of terrorism, and whether soulful shows with the participation of actual terrorists and hostages shown live on air are acceptable. What is o.k., and what is not o.k. to tell people? Of course, television nightmares were plentiful in the past as well. But Russian television viewers were seeing a 'reality show' of this scale for the very first time.

Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief for the radio station Echo Moskvy, which came under fire from the Ministry of Press for its coverage of the Durbrovka events, voiced the thought during the roundtable that journalists should not ignore their relationship to viewers, listeners, and readers: 'If they reject us, it means that we are not doing our job correctly.' In other words, it is necessary to be oriented on a kind of social demand. In general, it is hard to argue with this point of view. We will try to look, however, at more of the details.

Abundant violence on the television screen has long evoked protest from society. Scores of surveys witness to the fact that most Russians would welcome 'the introduction of censorship' to television. What is not clear, however, is what exactly does the word 'censorship' mean in this case. The paradox, here, is that the selection of artistic films and programs for broadcast on television is not made intuitively, or in accordance with the tastes of the station's leadership, but as a result of audience research. The situation is a strange one-we don't want to watch, but we love it: So the real issue, most likely, is about something else.

News is truly one thing that you cannot have made to order. We won't take into account the 'pseudoevents' and processes of sorting out news in order of importance, in part becoming oriented on the demands of the consumer, and in part acting upon that consumer. All of this has its place, and yet in a situation where there is a terrorist act, a news channel that doesn't bow to censorship cannot ignore it, because, if nothing else, this event has great meaning and importance for society. It is a call that requires an answer. If the society is a civil one, (or has aspirations to become such) a societal answer must be made. Of course, if we support the authoritarian structure we can easily abstain from the 'bad news' in favor of more positive information.

Nevertheless, we aspire to correspond to certain Western standards of democracy (the relative nature of these standards is discussed below), and that means that we need a mass media that will not conceal from us the information we need to formulate our answer.

'As a journalist, I must cover events,' emphasized Alexei Venediktov at the roundtable. Another round tale participant--Literaturnaya Gazeta columnist Arkady Sosnov- stressed the importance of journalists as a societal institution, requesting that the press not be made to be on the 'fringe'. Venediktov also noted that the press is not part of the conflict, but that the conflict is between officials and terrorists, while the press is only a third party which covers the conflict, and should not try to assume unusual functions.

Press coverage, to be sure, comes in different kinds. In those Western countries, on whose standards we are attempting to orient our practices, the approaches are extremely varied. In one instance, during the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, television restricted itself to only the most general coverage. However in Spain, for example, after the recent tragedy in Madrid, journalists displayed in full detail the horrible effects of the blasts, including the mutilated bodies of the dead.

Motivations can also be different, and the characteristics of the audience must be considered. As psychologist Sergei Tsytsarev (US) explained at the roundtable, people in different countries react differently to what they watch on television. In Japan, for example, the abundance of violence on the TV screen doesn't seem to have an effect on the psyche of people (the level of violence in Japan is extremely low), while in the US people seem to be extremely sensitive and believe everything they see on TV. As for Russia, no such studies have been carried out so it is difficult to make any conclusions.

Informational Cause to Reflect

In the Russian media, wars and terrorist acts have become cause for loud accusations. A few suppositions have been made-some plausible, and some not-but for the most part no one is proving anything consistently enough. On the backdrop of a factual shortage of information about what is actually happening, even the most fantastic hypotheses can seem real.

And the shortage of information exists-and for perfectly objective reasons. Terrorist acts happening here are traditionally anonymous except for hostage situations where the terrorists might be seen. The requests or demands, as a rule, are also absent. It is as if it should be loud and clear to everyone involved: And so the field of speculation, as a result, opens far and wide. Some are inclined to see the ghosts of the Federal Security Service above the exploding houses, while others search for 'scary Vakhabits', not entirely understanding those about whom they are speaking, or even what the issue is, meddling willy-nilly in the internal affairs of the leaders of Muslim society. Is it really worth it to wait for the citizens' reaction to what is happening if it is based on this mass brainwashing?

Similar practices, it must be confessed, are characteristic of journalists. Bright and paradoxical interpretations are attractive, but hardly explain anything. In contrast, assume we have taken out of the terrorist coverage anything shocking, or any interpretations of what has happened, leaving only the bare facts: 'There was an explosion, this many people died, this many were wounded:' It would seem a completely logical solution. But it is based on a false premise-that it is better not to worry.

People often talk about adapting to terror, or becoming accustomed to war. And perhaps it is exactly a monotonous supply of information that will lead to that very adaptation. A neutral news format will make terrorist acts an ordinary thing.

That the media may become 'accustomed to' terrorism could happen in regard to the media as a system, and selecting news for broadcast. And for this they should be criticized! But can people really become accustomed to it? The phenomenon of adapting to pain is well known-but that is pure psychophysiology. So what about thoughts?

Ask yourself this question-could you become accustomed to terrorism? Think about the wording:it is possible that the next 'pyrotechnics' in the style of September 11 won't leave such an impression on you. But how can we speak of becoming accustomed to terrorism as an experience? Are you accustomed to terrorism? I, personally, am not!

I think that someone swimming through television today does not necessarily encounter more terrible things that he would have seen in real life in the past. In the end, even becoming accustomed to things did not stop people from fighting with injustice through revolution or innovation. And that is what separates us from the animals.

We cannot remain silent about essential issues, even if it brings pain. On May 9 when I turned on the television to learn about the details of the tragedy in Chechnya, I saw a live broadcast of a holiday concert-happy faces in Moscow with the popular performers gladdening the crowd. The picture initially stunned me by its obvious inconsistency with the moment.

Some will say that the terrorists 'didn't ruin our holiday.' It seems to me, however, that by the lack of attention to what was really happening it actually was ruined-turned into some sort of insensible ritual. May 9, after all, is not just a time to have fun. Rather, it gives us cause to remember how we were able to gain victory in the Great Patriotic War. It order to defeat terrorism, society needs to activate its hidden potential.

The fact that the mass media did not adequately cover May 9 was discussed at the roundtable. According to Michael Rreshetnikov, Rector of the Eastern-European Institute of Psychoanalysis, this was the intention of the terrorists, foreseeing the media's limp reaction. Does anyone in Russia really need Chechnya if the assassination of the president, chosen by the people of that republic (no matter what they may say about the election process), isn't enough to tear the society away from its holiday celebrations?

Antiterrorist Vacancy Again and again we see legislative measures put forth that ban showing the victims of terrorist acts, or ban reporting these acts without the approval of the powers that be. Thankfully, these bills have not found support. The topic is just too difficult to adequately turn into law without doing a lot of harm. This, it seems, was something on which the Rosbalt roundtable participants did agree.

The issue here is most likely one of self organization and self limitation. In connection with this we remember the antiterrorism convention, ratified by journalists after 'Nord-Osta'. Thanks to this convention, noted Alexei Venediktov, the terrorist acts in the Moscow metro and the tragedy in the water park were covered in a new way.

Journalists will have to learn to work with these events. Ultimately, it is a great stress for them with all the possible consequences. So just how do we combat the stress and still avoid becoming a tool in the terrorists' hands? It is clear that journalists and experts in this area must work together to find a solution.

Sergei Tsytsarev, speaking to the roundtable, pointed to the need for a behavioral model alternative to terrorism. As long as there is no such model, the media will continue to help the terrorists, no matter how hard they try to do otherwise. According to Alexander Ureva, Doctor of Psychological Sciences, remarkable minds are behind the terrorist acts. No less remarkable minds, therefore, should take part in developing an anti-terrorist strategy-including that of the media.

Society needs a shot of new ideas so that the information of these events, like the events themselves, can mobilize society instead of destroying it. 'Negative' ways of solving the problem (limits, bans, bombing) must be cast aside. In place of these we must search for 'positive' resolutions, which, it is clear, are appreciably more difficult. But only after we find these resolutions will media discussions of terrorist acts cease to be 'two-way brainwashing.'


See also:

the original at

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

Act of Terror in Moscow

Rosbalt, June 6, 2004

[home page][map of the server][news of the server][forums][publications][Yabloko's Views]

Project Director: Vyacheslav Erohin e-mail: admin@yabloko.ru Director: Olga Radayeva, e-mail: english@yabloko.ru
Administrator: Vlad Smirnov, e-mail: vladislav.smirnov@yabloko.ru