Counterterrorism and the Media Research Paper

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The role of the media is particularly highlighted during critical periods in which there are extreme levels of terrorism threats, since the media are the primary source for gaining a perspective of the situation. The importance of the media was keenly demonstrated during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the American public heavily relied on news reports and followed them more closely than before. Indeed, CNN and FOX News were the major news networks to learn about the events (Castro 2006). Furthermore, for the police, cooperation with the media is essential in order to successfully deal with a terrorism crisis. Media reports of anti-terror policing may help police navigate events, reduce feelings of panic, and raise the sense of confidence in society. At the same time, during high threat levels of terrorism, the media stress the coverage of public trust in police and contribute to the legitimacy by underscoring the effectiveness of police counterterrorist efforts. However, as the terrorism threat subsides, counterterrorism coverage becomes more complicated and may harm police legitimacy.

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Faced with these realities, what can police organizations do in order to improve their cooperation with the media in their counterterrorist efforts? Fortunately, there is much that can be done. Police organizations must take into account the media when engaging in anti-terror policing and may develop various strategies to effectively respond to a terrorist strike with the media’s help. In addition, police organizations can take advantage of the media in order to secure public assistance for carrying out antiterrorism policing.

Fundamentals Of Police And The Media

The media are highly prone to focus their attention on the police in news programs as well as in the realm of fiction (e.g., in crime drama television series). Indeed, police work provides cases that are newsworthy and involve drama and violent action. Consequently, public perceptions of crime are distorted and characterized by an overrepresentation of severe and violent crime, and an underrepresentation of other types of offenses.

However, the media’s tendency to concentrate on the police also derives from the perception that the police represents rule-governed order and even symbolizes the state’s moral authority. Furthermore, the police force is the most visible organization of the criminal justice system, and therefore the onuses of dealing with crime and social control tend to fall disproportionately within their mandate (Ericson 1991; Chermak and Weiss 2005).

While the news media provide a wide forum in which police work is covered, they also present a conflicting portrayal of police. In some reports, the police image is highly professional and even heroic, while in others policing is portrayed as ineffective, marked by internal conflicts and corruption. In addition, the police image is also affected by the fictional depiction of television police serials (e.g., CSI and NYPD Blue), which profile the police in an unrealistic manner (Dowler and Zawilsk 2007). Overall, it seems that the media tend to represent police work as unsuccessful and incompetent rather than professional and effective (Fox and Van Sickel 2001; Gallagher et al. 2001).

Another important aspect is related to the role of the media in reshaping the legitimacy of the police in the public sphere. Police legitimacy plays an essential role in public compliance and cooperation with the police. Accordingly, if people perceive the police as legitimate and place trust in them, they are more willing to obey the law and collaborate with the police (Sunshine and Tyler 2003). In this context, the media assume a key function in “policing the police” by exposing cases of police wrongdoing and mismanagement. As a result, they stimulate public discourse regarding procedural propriety, which urges police accountability, and this in turn contributes to legitimacy. Therefore, the coverage of these cases serves as a mechanism of regulation of police work and the compliance of its members. Moreover, the very existence of journalists as vigilant watchdogs over police forces on behalf of the public interest also contributes to the legitimization of the police (Ericson 1991; Reiner 1985).

However, the media can sometimes become very critical and may in fact erode police legitimacy for a long period of time. Even a single high-profile event of police misconduct may dramatically undermine the public trust and seriously damage police prestige. Findings indicate that following well-publicized incidents of police misbehavior cases, there was an immediate and dramatic increase in public disapproval of the police, which persisted for a long period of time (Sunshine and Tyler 2003). Furthermore, the media’s exposure of internal conflicts and management problems in the police organization may damage the latter’s legitimacy. As a result, police spokespeople consistently struggle to control the police’s image in the public sphere.

There is a continuous debate on the relationship between the police and media organizations. Police-media interaction seems to serve the needs of both types of organizations. The police are dependent upon the media in order to gain public cooperation, while the media need the police in order to obtain information on crime and terrorism, which are interesting and newsworthy items (Chermak and Weiss 2005; Lovell 2001). However, the dynamic interaction between these organizations may be depicted as coexisting relationships that ebb and flow in terms of dominance and control. This is because the police and the media organizations have different agendas: the police engage in controlling information in order to decipher crime, while the media are devoted to providing the “sensational” details of crime and the exposure of police misbehavior. Nevertheless, police organizations have increasingly developed a growing acknowledgement of the need to improve their interaction with the media. For example, police organizations have established structures and allocated appropriate resources to this end, such as public information officers (PIOs) who have trained in media communication in order to advance the organization’s goals. In some countries, the police have adopted media education-training programs for police officers in order to improve their performance skills in the media. Furthermore, some police organizations have collaborated with the media in solving crime, e.g., by partaking in investigation television programs which promote police-media cooperation. Thus, although the interaction between the police and the media is sometimes tense, in general, both organizations report high levels of satisfaction with respect to the quality of their relationship (Chermak and Weiss 2005).

Public Opinion About Policing And The Media

There is scholarly consensus in respect to the influence of the media on the public views of the police. However, there is considerable debate about the direction, course, and degree of the effect. In this regard, three main hypotheses have been offered. The hypodermic needle hypothesis assumes that coverage has a powerful and long-term effect, since people mainly rely on the media for their sources of information. The limited effects approach suggests that people evaluate information from the media about the police on the basis of the context of what they already know from other sources, such as direct contact with the police.

Therefore, reports about the police must contend with their preexisting knowledge. The subtle/ minimal effects hypothesis maintains that the effect of the media is neither dominant nor minimal, but in fact is achieved differently. To elaborate, the media guide the perceptions of people regarding the most important issues involving crime and policing by highlighting particular topics and certain crimes. Hence, by framing police work in a certain way, the media reshape public perceptions and expectations about policing.

Studies have found that there is evidence for each of the three approaches. The overwhelming majority of the public consider the media as their main source of information about police and crime (Fox and Van Sickel 2001; Gallagher et al. 2001). At the same time, it was found that the media’s influence is moderated by race and preconceived attitudes toward the police. People who have negative views about the police or belong to minority groups are more likely to consume the coverage of police misconduct cases, which in turn may reinforce negative perceptions and lead to generalize these cases as representative of police work. Thus, the impact of media coverage depends on people’s perceptions and their prior experience with the police (Weitzer and Tuch 2004).

Media Framing Counterterrorism: International Perspectives

Terrorist attacks offer a powerful narrative for the media while often providing significant ratings. News reports provide terrorist attacks with meaning by reconstructing them within a social and political context that can be understood in a simple way (Nacos 2002). However, not all terrorist events receive coverage, and two main characteristics were found to determine the likelihood of broadcasting a report: the death toll and the extent of destruction. Accordingly, terrorist events occasioning a high death toll or involving significant destruction will produce considerable amounts of news coverage (Chermak and Gruenewald 2006). Furthermore, the coverage of terrorist attacks is liable to be distinguished by several aspects: the report usually appears in the headlines of the news broadcasts; the construction of newspaper headlines often becomes emotional and features dramatization; and news articles are longer and accompanied by further visual aspects, such as headline colors and photographs (Sela-Shayovitz 2007).

While the framing of terrorism has been extensively studied, the coverage of police counterterrorism efforts has largely been neglected. The discussion on this topic can be divided into two main categories: the news framing of anti-terror policing under high levels of terrorist threat and the coverage of anti-terror policing as a routine activity.

The news coverage of an extreme terrorist threat is often characterized by assigning a great priority to anti-terror policing. Journalists frequently tend to spotlight police performance in anti-terror events on the front pages of the newspapers rather than focus on the traditional roles of police work (Sela-Shayovitz forthcoming). Indeed, during times of a security threat, people are more concerned about the success of police performance in counterterrorist operations rather than take an interest in other aspects of police work (Tyler and Huo 2002). Thus, it appears that news editors are attentive to public concerns and, as a result, stress the police’s ability to combat the danger.

A further central aspect is the role of the media in the rally ’round the flag effect. The rally effect relates to the impact of the security threat on the increase in public support for leaders and governmental institutions (Mueller 1973; Sigelman and Conover 1981). For example, following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the American public was united behind President George W. Bush, and his approval ratings soared to unprecedented levels. Furthermore, President Bush’s policies benefitted from high levels of support from all across the political spectrum at this time (Gaines 2002). Similarly, in research conducted in Israel, during a period of intense terrorism in the Second Intifada, there was an increase in the Jewish public’s positive evaluations of the Israeli police (Jonathan 2010). Several studies have demonstrated the key role of the media in the “rally effect.” For instance, the CNN’s massive coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990–1991 substantially relied on official sources and reshaped public approval of US policy by providing justifications for a military response (Livingston 1994). Additionally, immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ten largest American news papers reflected Bush’s policy of “war on terror,” and editors refrained from reporting criticism about the practical consequences of military intervention (Ryan 2004; Ruigrok and Van Atteveldt 2007).

In much the same manner, at these times, the media contribute to the “rally effect” and foster the legitimacy of the police in the public sphere. Research shows that during the period of an extreme terrorist threat in Israel, there was a significant increase in the favorable coverage of different aspects of police legitimacy, such as trust in police, police performance, interpersonal treatment, and the fairness of procedural processes. Journalists highly emphasized trust in police by frequently quoting statements of government ministers and citizens that reflected confidence in antiterrorism policing. In addition, the reporters refrained from engaging in criticism about police work. Yet, as the threat of terrorism declined, the media no longer remained positive and highly stressed their criticism of police (Sela-Shayovitz forthcoming).

Another interesting issue is the media’s tendency to become patriotic when terror strikes. Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist events, the American media framing of the situation was repeatedly characterized by a network of associations among ideas, images, and symbols, such as war and homeland security, which stimulated popular support of the government (Eatman 2003). Furthermore, the American media tended to be more patriotic in comparison to the media in other countries that suffered from terrorism, such as Britain (Ruigrok and Atteveldt 2007).

The coverage of anti-terror policing is also distinguished by the use of terms and symbols of war. During periods of severe terrorism threats, journalists often use phrases, symbols, and associations that foster patriotism and an affinity with the police forces in counterterrorism, such as police’s struggle with terror or police combat with suicide bombers. In addition, the newspapers glorify the achievements of anti-terror policing, employing terms associated with heroism. For example, “police officers prevent terrorist attack with their own bodies” or “blues to those who wear the blue uniform” (Sela-Shayovitz forthcoming). Thus, the media tend to embrace the police forces by underscoring their efforts in combating terrorism. This manner of coverage policing may encourage public solidarity and cooperation with the police forces. However, it is also possible that it results from the tendency of reporters to mainly rely on police sources, which consequently draw attention to police successes. In this context, research indicates that during these times, press editorials tend to adopt the official point of view provided by the government (Dor 2004).

Key Issues Of Covering Anti-Terror Policing

Following the decrease in terrorism threat, the covering of anti-terror policing becomes much more complex, since it involves ideological and political aspects. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate regarding the implications of anti-terror activities on human rights (Tyler et al. 2010). Thus, the media may serve as a forum where different perspectives about counterterrorism policies are debated and contested in the public discourse.

However, anti-terror strategies are less concerned with the infringements of human rights, whereas journalists are often devoted to the watchdog role of defending people’s rights (Chermak and Weiss 2005; Ericson 1991). Therefore, the report may weaken police legitimacy by exposing cases of human rights violations in counterterrorism. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, antiterrorism policing often became a justification for undermining civil liberties, and the exposure of these cases in the media led to public disapproval with counterterrorism (McCulloch and Pickering 2005). In a similar vein, heavily publicized cases of the abuse of human rights in Britain have considerably damaged police legitimacy (Loader and Mulcahy 2003; Reiner 2000).

It is important to note that the coverage of the violations of human rights in counterterrorism specifically causes harm to police relations with minority groups, since they are more likely to consume police misconduct cases in the media, which in turn reinforces their negative opinion of the police (Weitzer and Tuch 2004). Indeed, minority groups, such as Muslim communities, are often perceived as high-risk groups and become a focus of anti-terror policing due to their ethnic background. Consequently, their relations with the police are delicate and fragile (Tyler et al. 2010).

On the other hand, the media can provide assistance for successfully dealing with terror both from an organizational aspect and in particular cases. From an organizational perspective, the media can help sustain public opinion regarding the necessity to persist in counterterrorism efforts, since this type of policing is an extension of police duties (Bayley and Weisburd 2009). Consequently, as the risk of terrorism subsides, it might be relegated to a lower priority because the public becomes once again more concerned with traditional policing (e.g., crime control and maintaining the social order). Therefore, the police can take advantage of the media’s power to promote public awareness in carrying out this mission. Furthermore, police organizations may use the media for lobbying to obtain additional resources for anti-terror activities.

The media can help the police in specific cases in recruiting public cooperation and assistance. For instance, police organizations can use the media for issuing emergency warnings and other messages to the public, announcing clarifications about anti-terror operations (e.g., closing public areas for anti-terror drills), and promoting civil assistance in witnessing incidents, sharing suspicions, and providing information about terrorism.

Conclusions And Future Research

During times in which there is a high threat of terrorist attack, police-media cooperation is crucial in order to deal effectively with the situation and reduce panic. Additionally, media coverage of counterterrorism has a key role in police legitimacy and people’s readiness to obey police instructions. However, although the debate about crime and the media is long running, little scholarly attention has been paid to the coverage of police counterterrorist efforts. Recent findings indicate that under an intense terrorist threat, the media become favorable toward counterterrorism policing, and legitimacy significantly increases in the press (Sela-Shayovitz forthcoming). These findings highlight the importance of additional inquiries into the role of the media in profiling anti-terror policing.

From a practical perspective, research also raises the question of whether police organizations can improve their collaboration with the media in regard to counterterrorism. In this context, several aspects are particularly noteworthy.

Police organizations must take the media into account in the management of anti-terror policing, since police-media collaboration is crucial for gaining control over terrorist events. Moreover, the police should take advantage of a suspension in terrorism to train police officers about media performance in order to respond more effectively at the time of crisis. Second, it would be more beneficial to develop a framework of cooperation between the police and the media in order to formulate strategies of the management of emergency events and in handling sensitive information. In fact, several police organizations have developed models of cooperation with the media, such as the Scotland Yard and Israel (Castro 2006). Third, police forces may enhance their capacity for working with the media in counterterrorism efforts by engaging a specific spokesperson police officer who is a professional in this field. This is based on the fact that general police spokespersons cannot address the specific needs of this type of policing. Indeed, counterterrorism policing is a very complicated task, and police spokespersons who are proficient in their work are vital for cultivating public assistance and cooperation (Chermak and Weiss 2005; Lovell 2001).

Another important aspect is related to the necessity of fostering dialog with Muslim communities in respect to antiterrorism policing. In this context, police organizations can promote their relations with the local media and particularly those media outlets that are consumed by minority groups in order to enhance dialog and collaboration.

However, due to the media’s scrutiny of the violation of human rights, the police must be well equipped with strategies to manage the threat and minimize damage to the public trust. Although anti-terror policing is less accountable than other types of traditional policing, the police can use a variety of strategies to deal with these cases. For example, police can issue public announcements about investigations the case in order to draw their own lessons and pacify critical voices. Furthermore, the police can generate a process of regulation concerning the violation of human rights, which in turn reinforces legitimacy. Finally, police organizations may use the recourse of dismissing policepersons who have been accused of the abuse of human rights. Thus, by engaging in several techniques under the watchful eye of the media, the police can preempt the likelihood of overall criticism and restore public confidence in the police.

To conclude, future research should more closely examine the interaction between the police and the media in times of crises in order to develop strategies for effective cooperation during terrorist events. In addition, further research is required for a better understanding of the role of the media in shaping public perceptions about anti-terror policing. Most research in this field usually focused on one media outlet, whereas people from different social groups consume a diversity of media forms (national and local television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet). Thus, expanding the analysis to the impact of the various media genres on public opinion regarding counterterrorism may provide a deeper insight into this topic. It is also necessary to further examine the effect of the news coverage of police anti-terror activities and police legitimacy in order to enhance existing knowledge in this field.


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