Terrorism on the Front Cover

Is Media the Oxygen of Terrorism or a Societal Resource of Defense?

By André Francischetti Moreno

Vulnerability, despair, and not knowing from whom to run, where to go or what to do. On the 9th of November 2019, these feelings were felt once again in Europe, when 2 people died and 3 were wounded after a stabbing in the heart of London, described by the Scotland Yard as terrorism. The attacker was Usman Khan, 28, who was released from jail in December 2018, five years after he had been convicted for planning an attack on the London Stock Exchange and pubs in Stoke and setting up a jihadist training camp in Pakistan (“London Bridge,” 2019). Emphatically, this new and complex form of terrorism enacted by individual cells is being broadly recurrent in the past decade, and its motivations go much beyond George W. Bush´s explanation that terrorists are driven by their jealousy of the Western freedom. In this reflection, we are not going to cover the transnational networks and new technologies that facilitate the recruiting of individual cells by the so-called terrorist groups. Instead, we will go through the very motivations that guide these groups in order to better understand why the media coverage of terrorist attacks may paradoxically both underpin them and contribute to protecting society.

Above all, the perpetuators of terrorism are generally political actors who promote their own political agenda and are confronted with blocked institutions in their home states (e.g. censorship), which prevent them of performing changes. Following the ideas of Keck and Sikkink (1998), this phenomenon lead to the “Boomerang Effect”, in which these actors can bypass blocked institutions, and directly connect with transnational networks. Local political entrepreneurs frame their cause, build up organizational structures that command political loyalties and mobilize resources. Particularly, the attacks we have been talking about are located as one type of the possible resources of political contention (Adamson, 2005), and do not have as their main objective the killing of a great amount of people, but media coverage. The media coverage of an issue provides a space for moderate organizations to argue a distinction between the legitimacy of the cause and the tactics used to shed a light on them, thus increasing the public pressure on national governments to solve the respective problems claimed by the groups.

On the 22nd of July 2011, a home-grown right-wing extremist with an anti-Islamic and anti-immigration agenda killed 69 people, mostly teenagers on the island of Utøya, in Norway. Two hours earlier, the main governmental office complex in Oslo was attacked with an aftermath of eight deaths (Bivand & Strømsø, 2018). The Norwegian media coverage featured a constant flow of detailed interviews with survivors and family members of the victims. According to Schultz et al. (2014), “During the weekend after the terrorist attacks, respondents reported spending an extensive amount of time watching the news: a mean total of 17 hours in Oslo, and 16 elsewhere in Norway.” The news media coverage gave the perpetrator and his political messages publicity and hindered the victims by exposing them.

On the other hand, the media coverage of terrorist attacks is not only a matter of transparency, a fundamental tenet of democracy, but also a forum in which the civil society can gather information on the current level of alert in their communities, safety procedures and security norms. Furthermore, by dramatizing the event and deepening the understanding of the tactics used by the political actor in question, civil society is able and motivated to pursue policies against recruitment, dismantle transnational networks of terror, increase solidarity and avoid similarly dimensioned attacks in the future. 

Briefly, one can see that the actions of terrorist entities, pivots of a recurring theme of European security, do not end at the act of attempting against life or sovereignty of a country. Nevertheless, it goes on and uses the freedom of speech, a basis of modern democratic states, in order to further its effects and achieve its political objectives. In conclusion, an important meta-analysis remains for the media agencies and another for the public. First, to what extent should communication means echo terrorist attacks and what is their responsibility towards society? The latter, is some sort of regulation on coverage content necessary, or would it undermine the structures of a healthy democracy?


Adamson, F. (2005). Globalisation, Transnational Political Mobilisation, and Networks of Violence. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 18(1), 31-49.

Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn M.A. (2019, September 30). Remembering Terrorism: The Case of Norway. Retrieved from https://icct.nl/publication/remembering-terrorism-the-case-of-norway/.

Keck, M., & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond borders advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

London Bridge: What we know about the attack. (2019, December 3). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50594810.

Bivand M.E., & Strømsø, M. (2018). Interrogating boundaries of the everyday nation through first impressions: experiences of young people in NorwaySocial & Cultural Geography 0:0, pages 1-22.

Schultz, J.-H., Langballe, A., & Raundalen, M. (2014, July 2). Explaining the unexplainable: designing a national strategy on classroom communication concerning the 22 July terror attack in Norway. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082195/.