Modern terrorism is carried out by small groups without state support, who nevertheless manage to gain influence by inducing fear among their opponents. This way of spreading influence did not exist before the rise of mass media, which heralded the birth of modern terrorism, Norwegian psychologists say.
Despite the fact that the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is infinitesimally low, the media's grim coverage of terrorism with live streaming and in-depth reports induces fear across the globe, Norwegian psychologists Bard Lyster and Marie Midtsund wrote in an opinion piece for the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Consequently, half of the Norwegian population reported an increased fear of terrorism in Norway following the recent wave of attacks across Europe.
"Death Statistics alone do not have the necessary psychological impact force. The media have been loyal distribution partners for all terrorists throughout history," Lyster and Midtsund wrote.
According to the Norwegian psychologists, the media coverage drenched with pictures of terror and fears of a world religion could widen the gap between various groups in society.
"Today, people are provided with a creative ‘inner theater' that continually produces imagery of how things can go to hell," they wrote.
Overall, dramatic events are more likely to capture people's attention than neutral reports or positive news. Extensive media coverage only reinforces the effect: the more often we see something, the more likely we consider it, despite the fact that the effect is only enhanced by being exposed to the same images over and over again. After September 11, many people became afraid to fly, and therefore chose to drive despite the higher risk. This phenomenon alone is estimated to have cost thousands of Americans their lives after the notorious terrorist attack that was broadcasted worldwide.
Of late, a positive tendency towards self-reflection and restraint has emerged among media sources, as the French TV channel that interviewed the two terrorists while they held hostages in Paris in 2015 was condemned. French media agreed to no longer display pictures of terrorists or give their names in order to prevent their glorification.
However, calls for a more reserved coverage of terrorist attacks are often dismissed under the pretext that such restriction would challenge the public's need for information, which is among the principles that underscore the need for a free press.
According to Lyster and Midtsund, the people's right to information is often used by the media as an excuse to attract attention through sensationalism, which only fuels the public's hypervigilance, where senses only are focused on averting danger, real and imaginary alike.
For Norway, which in 2011 suffered one of the bloodiest mass shootings in history, when 77 people were shot dead by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, the coverage of terrorist attacks remains a sensitive issue. Earlier, two out of three Norwegians expressed discontent with the excessive way their media addressed the issue of terrorism.
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