The Concept of Terrorism

There are multiple definitions of terrorism. It is a concept filled with ideological, social, political, economic and military values--among many. Above all, it is a concept with a strong emotional component, which makes difficult its rational and balanced analysis.

If we search for the elements to define this concept to which everybody would agree, we will find the following:

* Terrorist acts are committed by organized groups at--or beyond--the edge of the law.

* With their acts, they claim to seek specific objectives that have not been

democratically accepted.

* The main instrument used for attaining these goals is to provoke social terror.

* This terror is achieved through acts of extreme intensity and violence, able to catch the attention of the media and to compromise the civil authorities.

* These acts involve human lives in an indiscriminate way. Therefore, the victims become an instrument to help achieve a level of terror and social impact.

Kant's principle of non-exploitation, which states "do not wish for others what you don't wish for yourself" is accepted as one of the most important principles of a universal ethic. It implies rejection of the idea of treating, under any circumstances, people as instruments to achieve goals.

But this is precisely the essence of terrorism: To exploit human lives, treating people only as instruments.

This first conclusion provides us with two ethical reflections:

First, the ethical thing to do would be to reject every terrorist activity, even if the expressed social or political demands of terrorists eventually could be acceptable or even, in the abstract, desirable.

Second, the deep involvement of the media is necessary for terrorists to achieve their purposes. As a result, the media have an important ethical responsibility.

The Roles of Media

According to Lasswell (1948) and Wright (1986), the media have four main social functions:

Surveillance: The media alert the public, serving as a watchdog. This involves monitoring the activities of the authorities, particularly-in the context of terrorism-with respect to governmental control of important political and social activities, especially when responding to potential threats of socio-economical relevance.

Correlation: This exercises the explanatory and interpretory functions of the mass media. It serves a very important role, since educating and highlighting of issues and events contributes to the social construction of reality.

Socialization: Connects people to the different levels of society and increases social cohesion. One of the most important functions of the socialization process is "solidarity": Bonding people to their society by reinforcing social norms and rules. This function is particularly important in time of crisis (See: McLeod, Eveland and Signorielli) when the audience needs solidarity--building media content. Most recently, during the 9/11 crisis, the media were in great demand for this purpose.

Entertainment: Includes rest, relaxation and tension reduction. Even if there isn't much empirical evidence for this, it seems that the media could help reduce some of the anxiety associated with the uncertainties of a terrorist attack.

Terrorist activity involves all four of these functions:

It involves surveillance because it involves events of social importance located at the edge of social values. It involves correlation because it is the job of the media to analyze such events with efficiency and responsibility in order to transmit correct information. It involves socialization because a terrorist act creates a social crisis of extreme importance and the audience needs the solidarity function to feel stronger and safer. And it involves entertainment because it helps to reduce the anxiety associated with terrorism and its consequences.

These ideas provide us with a second ethical reflection: The media must have the freedom to inform their audiences about terrorist activities.

Using the argument of national security, quite frequently it has been proposed that politicians or bureaucrats should control or ban the dissemination of media information about terrorism. The opposing argument is that the major function of media consists of contributing to social stability through providing information and analysis of such events.

From a practical point of view, however, it has been demonstrated that the repeated attempts of the political powers to control the media have been unsuccessful--for example, in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Sri Lanka.

This second reflection, about the ethical responsibility of the media to inform at a time of terrorist acts, leads to a new ethical obligation, what Habermas calls communicative action. This involves the establishment of discussion groups in or by the media with the objective of involving social groups in the reflection on and construction of social values about terrorism. In other words, discussion groups will take part in the construction of social reality. Some authors have called this construction of social values using the discursive ethics that comes from the professionals of the media a deeply dialogic-or truly open-minded-approach to honest dialogue.

It is possible that the previous idea is in the background of some standards or professional codes of some media organizations or groups. For instance, the CBS News Standards acknowledge that the coverage of terrorist actions is important, but that "there must be thoughtful, conscientious, care and restraint" (Alexander and Latter, p. 130). The coverage should not "provide an excessive platform for the terrorist," nor should it hide or "unduly crowd out other important news of the hour/day" (p. 140).

The Cultural Industry

The different mechanisms of creation, production and distribution of the media are extremely complex. These mechanisms are conditioned by social, political and economic powers and interests which introduce elements of difficulty to the implementation of the previously mentioned ethical ideas.

Most mass media--audiovisual networks, publishing houses, etc.-belong to entrepreneurial groups which have economic bonds with other social and political groups. These bonds frequently suggest that media decisions are of a political nature. In a similar sense, the media often are prone to different ideological ideas, which have influence over management focus on certain "sensible" approaches to the presentation of news.

Frequently, there is a tension between the media and the authorities. This mutual distrust has its origin in the "watchdog" function of the media and the fear of authorities to face an implicit countervailing "power."

In certain situations, some journalists' approach to coverage of terrorist acts may be guided by a motivation for professional achievement. This would give lower priority to seriousness, impartiality and social responsibility.

The narrative structure of the media-especially audiovisual media--tends to use what Iyengar called an episodic focus more than a thematic one. In other words, they tend to present the news more as if it were a film-exaggerating and constructing a story-instead of using a more objective treatment and thus protecting the validity and reliability of original data.

So, the inherent nature of terrorist acts-unexpected and dramatic-provokes the media to immediately and urgently cover the news strictly as an event, making it difficult to take time for the necessary consideration that leads to context and implications.

Final Reflections

The contemporary treatment of terrorism by the media does not indicate that the previously described ethical proposals are generally respected. Also, there are noticeable differences in media functions in the many countries that are subject to terrorist attacks as well as noticeable differences between the several media and their organizations.

In terms of the Von Bertanlanffy's formulation of a General Theory of Systems, we could say that we have the impression of a lack of information exchange between the scientific system, the political system and the media system. Politicians ignore proposals and knowledge from the scientific system about the psychological, social and cultural origins and purposes of terrorism. They also ignore the scientific mechanism of the media-specifically the mechanisms of the social effects of the media. The media system doesn't seem to act upon this social scientific knowledge, even though its professional practice sometimes gives information of this kind. Possibly the final conclusion would be that there is too little information flow-and cooperation-among these systems.

In summary: (1) the media should have the obligation, the responsibility and the right and freedom to inform about terrorism, (2) they also have the responsibility to actively provoke social interaction, and (3) they must fight against the difficulties inherent in the systems of which they are a part.

In order to achieve these ideas we must build an ethic based upon a "social corresponsibility" which implies:

* That the scientific system must make an effort to investigate terrorism to obtain data and test theories which will allow everyone to better comprehend this phenomenon and the consequences of current media treatment.

* That the political system must make an effort to understand these mechanisms and to fulfill the equilibrium among the short-term objectives-basically electoral in nature-and the long-term ones, such as actively working for peace.

* That the media system must make an effort or know the mechanisms that explain the terrorism phenomenon and the consequences of broadcasting or publishing about it. They also have to keep the "dialogic attitude" that is an appropriate condition for the discursive ethic that allows the media to overcome the difficulties arising from the current informative network.

Perhaps it might also be possible to stretch these ethical efforts to the citizenry. The public should make an effort to improve its level of comprehension of the terrorist phenomenon--and of how its media cover terrorism.


Alexander, Y. & Latter, R. (1990). Terrorism and the media: Dilemmas for government, journalists and the public. Washington: Brassey's Inc.

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1950). An Outline of General System Theory, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, p.139-164.

Habermas, J. (1985). Conciencia moral y acciᄁn comunicativa. Barcelona: Penᄀnsula.

Iyengar, Shanto (1991). Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Kant, I. (1990). Fundamentaciᄁn de la metafᄀsica de las costumbres. Madrid: Real Sociedad Econᄁmica Matritense de Amigos del Paᄀs.

Lasswell, H. (1948). "The structure and function of communication in society." In L. Bryson (ed.), The communication of ideas. New York: Harper. pp. 37--51.

McLeod, D.M., Eveland, W.P. & Signorelli, N. (1994): "Conflict and public opinion: Rallying effects of the Persian Gulf War." Journalism Quarterly, 71 (1), 20--31.

Wright, C.R. (1986). Mass communication: A sociological perspective. 3rd ed. New York: Random House.

The authors are connected to the research group on Terrorism and Social Communication in Complutense University of Madrid. School of Communication, Madri, 28040, Spain. Tania Menendez is research fellow in social communication and general assistant of Postgraduate Studies, Maria Luisa Garcia is associate professor, and Ubaldo Cuesta is professor and chair of the School of Communication. They may be reached via E-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.14,42-43.