The last week has seen terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Mali. And while every terrorist attack is unique in its horror, the coverage tends to follow predictable, not always admirable, patterns: the inaccurate and uninformative phrases that are repeated endlessly; the viral photos that, even if well-meant, tend to be false; the phony experts pushing a political agenda.
In an attempt to separate the truth from the noise, and with the help of reporters, terrorism experts, and the media's best and worst habits, we put together a Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Terrorism Edition.
- Politico's Jack Shafer discusses why words like "mastermind" create an unhelpful, even dangerous, fantasy, by overestimating the brilliance of murderers and downplaying the real world difficulties.
- J.M. Berger, co-author of "ISIS: The State of Terror," attempts to place terrorism in its context, explaining why, however frightening, a terrorist attack is not likely to be "unprecedented."
- Joanne Stocker, Managing Editor for Grasswire, discusses the social media reaction to last week's attack in Paris and advises on how best to proceed when your Twitter feed is overwhelmed by coverage in the immediate aftermath of an attack.
"Viderunt Omnes" by Kronos Quartet
"The Stone" by The Chieftains
"Final Retribution" by John Zorn
1. Remember, in the immediate aftermath almost everyone will get it wrong. Terrorist attacks are designed to sow mayhem and confusion. Even using best practices, news outlets, witnesses, and governments need time to get the facts straight.
2. As always, local, non-anonymous, and verified sources offer better info. Most news sources will be operating off of second- and third-hand information. Wait for trustworthy, verified reports from those who actually know.
3. Amid all the contradictory statements, focus on consistent reports.
4. The more emotional the commentary, the less reliable the information. Rational thinking is essential in these moments, as well as remembering the lessons of history.
5. Really don’t pay attention to politicians. Incidents like these are uniquely suited to political manipulation, especially in a campaign year, and politicians of all stripes will be tempted to push their favorite agenda.
6. In fact, examine the credentials of all putative “experts.” Just because someone worked in government doesn’t make them a terrorism expert. Even a CIA background is no guarantee of expertise.
7. Pay attention to the language the media uses:
- “Mastermind” … endows terrorists with more power than they have.
- “Sophisticated” … overestimates crudely planned mayhem.
- “Unprecedented” … there is little “new” in terrorist methods.
8. Inevitably, whole populations and religions are scapegoated. Ignore this.
9. Resist reflexive retweeting. Number of shares belies accuracy. Even well-intentioned social media users will get things wrong. Better to wait than to share an inaccurate meme that could have negative consequences. In fact, generally...
10. Be patient. No matter what, the unfolding of the story will take time and mistakes will be made. Allow the coverage to develop and let those who were affected recover and respond in their own way, on their own time.
BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. This week, the terrorists who hate our freedom won by scaring us into a bunker. That’s largely because of what happened in Paris. You know what happened. At least, you know by now. But last Friday, as it unfolded on mainstream and social media, we were confronted with a tangle of truth and hysterics, expertise and rumor, with or without malice aforethought.
Actually, we were in the studio when we first learned about Paris. Our phones buzzed in unison, twitter notifications that kept buzzing as we put the final touches on last week’s show.
BOB: Turns out people were retweeting the breaking news consumers handbook we wrote two years ago, after a mass shooting. It offers guidance on how to evaluate initial reports after such a crime: the sources, the journalistic jargon, general words to the wise. Point number 4: There is almost never a second shooter.
But acts of terrorism, though similar in many respects, do not follow the same arc of coverage as the rampages of deranged shooters in schools and shopping malls. (For one thing, there often is a second shooter.)
In other words, there are reporting errors peculiar to terrorist attacks, that tragically, you ought to know. So we begin this show with yet another of our Breaking News Consumers Handbooks: The Terrorism Edition.
And we’ll begin with the frequent use of a misleading word.
BROOKE: In the days following an attack like this, designed to sow terror and confusion, there is an urgent need to find the culprit. Not just the group behind it, but the actual individual. We seem to crave a specific human target for our anger and fear. But we don’t want it to be just anybody. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote this week, we want it to be a “mastermind.”
ABC: Breaking news this morning in France. Heavy gunfire and explosions in an early morning raid targeting the mastermind behind the Paris Attacks.
NBC: Authorities say the alleged mastermind is a high-profile ISIS member.
CNN: Abdel Hamid Abbaoud, who we have been told at least since Monday is the mastermind, the brain, the actual Belgian who went to Syria more than a year ago.
SHAFER: They had to find some evocative word that would rank the villainy of the organizer up there with Professor Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter or Ernst Blofeld from 007 movies. One of the reasons I think it's important for us to abandon the word mastermind is that there's nothing really ingenious about the mechanics of what they're doing. It's about as sophisticated as ordering a pizza. The operation is essentially gun running by french nationals, setting their watches, making sure their suicide vests are properly fitted, and executing a plan according to a stopwatch. They're using very rudimentary tools of murder.
BROOKE: You were talking about the use of the mastermind narrative and how it treats terrorism in pop culture, and you mentioned 24 in which the forces of good predictably vanquish the forces of evil in each series finale.
SHAFER: When you think about a show like 24, if all the terrorists were really stupid, always blowing themselves up, and always missing their buses, no one would be compelled to watch such a television show. For the drama to work, the villain must be absolutely diabolical, and we see that again and again in the way that Hollywood and book publishing portrays villains. they know everything, they anticipate every countermeasure that the hero's going to take. But in real life, they're not these Colossuses. They're just working class guys whose job is to kill themselves while killing others.
BROOKE: Well, what happens in real life politics when we overestimate the genius of these guys?
SHAFER: Well, I think we strike out blindly, wildly in the case of the 9/11 slaughter. We ended up invading Iraq and shouldn't have. But we wisely invaded Afghanistan, which was the territorial source of the planning and the logistics of the operation. Terror causes us to lose our senses. That's what the enemy is hoping. And I don't want to be one of those guys who says Oh right now we're doing exactly what ISIS wants us to do, we're over reacting, but I guess I am gonna be that guy. We've got to be careful to maintain our rationality in the face of what is an irrational horror that's taken place.
BROOKE: One last question, Jack. You wrote when we turn the bad guy into a mastermind, we're offering ourselves an oddly false comfort, a way to make sense of a world that is neither as full of evil geniuses as the tv version would have us believe, nor as comforting.
SHAFER: Yeah. You know, the only way that I can wrap my mind around this is to think of it as a dumb war.A dumb, bloody war that the terrorists seem to be engaging in so there's no reason for us to glorify it or dress it up or pin sequins on it. As the product of brilliance. It also puts into perspective exactly who we're fighting: somebody who's not very bright, but absolutely tenacious, and ruthless, not only in terms of who they kill, but how they die themselves.
BROOKE: Jack, thank you very much.
SHAFER: Thank you.
BROOKE: Jack Shafer is is Politico’s senior media writer.
BOB: Mastermind is one word to watch out for, “Unprecedented” is another. TV experts pose another hazard. So does passion. And politics. J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror. J.M., Welcome back to the show.
BERGER: Thank you for having me back.
BOB: Whenever a fresh attack occurs, we seem to forget everything that has ever happened before in all of human history.
BERGER: Yeah, well, we remember 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, so when the Paris attacks were taking place a lot of people were saying this is the worst terrorist attack on the West since 9/11, but in 2004 the Madrid subway attacks were more deadly, although arguably less disruptive. Remember that there's very little that happens in the realm of terrorism that's genuinely new. Even the 9/11 attacks had precursors. There were things in the past that sort of pointed to that so you should always take a grain of salt when you hear somebody say something is new and unprecedented. So, one thing that has frustrated me in a lot of this coverage is that there's been a great deal of talk about ISIS having new capabilities. In the case of the Paris attacks, there was definitely prior evidence to suggest that this was well within ISIS's reach.
BOB: Terrorism is just a magnificent opportunity for a certain kind of opportunistic politics. Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?
BERGER: Well we can certainly try to keep some sense of perspective first. Terrorist attacks generally are not an existential threat. They are serious, we should treat them seriously, and respond to them, but you know, there's I think Lindsey Graham said last week that ISIS is coming here to kill us all and they're not going to be able to do that. Secondly, we either hugely overestimate or hugely underestimate them. They're either defeating us, or they're no harm, so we say oh they're contained or oh we don't think they have the capability to strike in the West which many people said prior to this attack. And both things are kind of demonstrably untrue. So, you know, when we overestimate them we're doing them a favor because we're making them look bigger than they are. When we underestimate them we're doing them a favor because when they do something that we didn't expect, everybody freaks out.
BOB: Wall to wall coverage following a terror attack means that cable news channels have to fill a lot of time with a lot of talking heads presented as somehow expert. Are they always experts?
BERGER: Well, you know there are people who are certainly more qualified to talk about this than others. You know I was struck while watching CNN's coverage of Paris that they were running a promo for a special by Fareed Zakaria that was going to explain where the Islamic State came from and the most prominent person featured in that promo was Tom Friedman who is not the first person I would go to for that explanation.
BOB: He's not a terrorism expert.
BERGER: He's more of a generalist and we need generalists in our public discourse, but there are also people who can drill down into this. So it's a challenge cable channels have in filling those chairs but at the same time i hear some of the stuff they say and I Just shake my head.
BOB: And from the "where are they now" file we give you this:
Former Vice President Dan Quayle on what he would do to address this growing ISIS threat.
BOB: The chyron should have said, Who Cares what Dan Quayle thinks we should do? Dan Quayle?
BERGER: When you're looking for somebody to fill that seat as the coverage stretches on and on then you start looking further afield, so you look for people with stronger possibly entertaining political opinions. If you've ever worked for the CIA then you're qualified to comment on ISIS, doesn't matter if you spent 20 years in Guatemala they'll call you up.
BOB: How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?
BERGER: I think you look for people who are sober, and who have access to facts.
BOB: Do you mean sober as in non histrionic or sober as in not actually drunk?
BERGER: [laughs] sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The more emotional the argument the more questions you should have about it. ANd we say this with Al Qaeda to some extent too, but ISIS even more really has captured the theater of terrorism like no other group has. Look for a coherent version of the facts. Check other sources, and one thing that was pretty striking in the hours and days after paris was really just the unbelievably conflicting statements of fact. One day we were saying that ISIS you know has never shown the capability to do this before and the next day it's like we should have known this from the beginning. sometimes the same person saying both things.
BOB: J.M, thank you very much.
BERGER: Thank you.
BOB: J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror, we’ll be hearing from him again later on in the show.
BROOKE: And now the Twitter part. Obviously, our instant link to the world can both deepen our insight and our ignorance. Joanne Stocker is a Managing Editor for Grasswire, a site that uses crowdsourcing to fact-check breaking news. She saw a heap of false messages and faked photos shared during last week’s attack, some well meant, others not. For instance, one viral picture claimed to show one of the attackers. Except it wasn’t a suicide bomber, it was a just a man, as it happens, a Sikh, who had been photoshopped to look like one.
STOCKER: He was holding an iPad and taking a selfie in his bathroom and they photoshopped that into a Quran…STOCKER: an Ipad and taking a selfie in his bathroom. And they photoshopped that into a Quran, and they photoshopped a suicide vest on him, and you know, they were spreading that around as this is one of the Paris attackers. They even photoshopped his eyebrows so that he looked angry. There was a sex toy photoshopped on the bathtub behind him, like really badly done. But if you're in the heat of the moment and you see this come across, it's "oh my god, this guy's one of the attackers" - people don't actually stop and look at it with that critical eye for the most part. They just reflexively hit retweet.
BROOKE: And of course social media is subject to the same problem that all media are subject to which is that once a lie is out there, it's almost impossible to take it back.
STOCKER: Right. Nobody reads retractions, so we took his actual photo from August --
BROOKE: The Sikh?
STOCKER: Yes, which is just a nice selfie, and juxtaposed it with the bad one with a giant red x over it, and we actually tweeted those together, so that you were seeing both of them at once. It's almost like that old matching game, circle what's different in the two photos and then it was like "oh, well yeah of course this was fake."
BROOKE: You just hit on something fascinating - it was widely shared, your correction, and maybe it's because you gamified it!
STOCKER: Yeah. And that's what we're trying to do, is make it as compelling as the fake photos. You know because everyone remembers Hurricane Sandy, there was pictures of sharks swimming in the streets of New Jersey, which is ridiculous, right? But that picture looks cool so people want to share that, and I think that if you can take the truth and actually present it in the same way, then you can actually inform people in a way that they're going to want to pass it on.
BROOKE: So if you were to isolate one particular breaking news consumer's handbook in the wake of a terrorist attack for twitter users, what would it be?
STOCKER: My favorite thing in the Breaking News Consumer's Handbook is the first one: in the immediate aftermaths news outlets will get it wrong. And if you want to take that into Twitter and say that in the immediate aftermath the reports are going to be messy. And you have to give them time, you know? You have to give the authorities and the witnesses and the media in general time because governments are going to get it wrong, and the media is gonna get it wrong and witnesses are going to get it wrong. And it doesn't mean that there's a conspiracy, it just means that this is breaking news.
BROOKE: What do you anticipate in terms of falsity in the reporting that we'll be seeing further out from the event?
STOCKER: Scapegoating, you know they're already talking about the refugee issue. There was a passport that miraculously survived one of the suicide attacks that was found and they said that that passport had come through Greece, and so this is a Syrian refugee and we need to be careful if someone came here as a refugee and committed this act. And then it turned out I think it was two days later that they arrested somebody in Serbia who had the same passport, the picture was different but all the other data was the same.
BROOKE: So the passport was faked.
STOCKER: It's almost certain. i think that we have a human need for answers. We need to know who did this, and sometimes saying that it's Daesh or ISIS isn't enough - we need that face. This person did it and they are from Belgium, this person did it and they are from Syria. What's so dangerous about it is once you've got that person's face in your head or their name, it's so hard to replace that with the accurate information. And then we get nervous. Well you told me that it was this guy, and now you're telling me that it's this other guy. We start to trust government a little bit less, we start to trust the media a little bit less, and I think that that makes us feel that we're more insecure than we really are.
BROOKE: Joanne, thank you very much.
STOCKER: Thank you so much, it was really nice to talk to you.
BROOKE: Joanne Stocker is the managing editor for Grasswire.
BOB: Those are the components of the Breaking news Consumers handbook, you can find a handy one page version at our website, on the media.org.
You can find a link to the handy, one- page edition of our breaking news consumers handbook at on the media.org. For the rest of the show, we consider the words, the memes, and the misdirection that muddy the media, and our perspective, on Islam, and the Arab world.
BATTAH : the paris articles were really intimate, we knew about the places it happened, we knew that there was a rock band playing. There was no mention in Beirut of the school, the hospital, the crowded market place that was near this explosion.
BROOKE: This is On the Media.