Attention Encourages Terrorism

Now a study has attached numbers to what we’ve known for a long time: giving attention to terrorists encourages terrorism. A study by Michael Jetter, professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia, and research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, finds a clear link between the number of news articles devoted to an initial terrorist incident and the number of follow-up attacks. A New York Times article about an attack in a particular country will increase the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11 percent and 15 percent.

The simple solution is disallowed by our fundamental law of free speech. But consumers can demand less aggrandizement of terror incidents from the media and politicians. The practice in journalism of declining to name rape victims could be extended in modified form to terror organizations and leaders.

There is no reason to keep information about terrorists and terror groups secret, but more muted references to them will decrease the success of attacks by reducing the awareness of potential recruits, for example. Potential terrorists are susceptible to discouragement through diminished public information because many have a room temperature IQ (on the Celsius scale).

In our edited volume, Terrorizing Ourselves, Chris Preble, Ben Friedman, and I included two chapters that relate to this topic: “The Impact of Fear on Public Thinking about Counterterrorism Policy: Implications for Communicators,” by Priscilla Lewis, and “Communicating about Threat: Toward a Resilient Response to Terrorism,” by William Burns.