The first thing I saw when I looked at my phone today was a string of alerts from major and minor news outlets blaring headlines like: “Ariana Grande Manchester Concert Explosion: Shock, Chaos on the Ground During Aftermath” (Billboard) and “Manchester Arena explosion: Children are among 22 killed by suicide bomber at Ariana Grande concert” (Telegraph: UK).
I immediately began to pull up more articles/analyses from CNN, The New York Times, and NBC News on my iPhone news feed to see what I could find out about the latest attacks.
The answer was basically nothing.
This is what various news outlets knew as of the night of the attack:
- The attack happened as an Ariana Grande show was letting out (further analysis from counterterrorism experts tells us that this is a very effective strategic action on the part of the (terrorist) attacker, since it allows for more targets and for the possibility of a stampede).
- The the attack may or may not be the action of a suicide bomber trying to create a sense of mayhem and panic. This kind of attack is a hallmark of ISIS and AQAP.
- Counterterrorism measures in England have been tight.
- Again, this may or not be a terrorist attack, although it probably is, because ISIS does this kind of thing.
- This looks more like the Paris attacks than the Nice, San Bernadino, or recent spate of incidents of terrorism using cars, since the bomb seems to be more sophisticated, as does the plan of attack (and this is something that I would argue against).
- Between 19-22 people have been killed and 50 more (at least) have been injured.
- This is all speculation.
- It may or may not be a terrorist attack designed to heighten panic and mayhem.
- This may or may not involve ISIS (read: it definitely does).
- There’s chaos on the ground and only social media-released cell phone video and a few professional photographers/reports have made it out of Manchester.
- Ariana Grande is “devastated.”
This kind of reporting is not new. We, as consumers of multiple news outlets, have been exposed to sensationalist pre-fact news when any news-worthy crisis– mainly those occurring in Western nations– hits our front doors or, as is the case now, our mobile devices, computers, and televisions. There has also been a numerous amount of criticism coming from within and without the mass communication sphere (which is easily google-able) about sensationalism in news agencies.
However, there are important elements that make this kind of reporting about potential terrorist attacks particularly problematic.
First, though, let me articulate what I mean by pre-fact news.
- It is characterized by a lack of clear evidence, (aside from grainy images, videos of injured victims, and flashing police lights), that actually outlines what has occurred.
- There is much belaboring of the few things the anchors/print reporters do know, because they don’t know much.
- There is also a proliferation of analyses by experts and non-experts alike on the suppositions about the crisis by news anchors who only have a sketchy picture of the actual event available to work with.
- There is usually a bright red subtitle (especially in televised coverage) with “Breaking News” flashing on the screen. The “Breaking News” subtitle is a lie. “Breaking we-think-something-big-happened-but-we’re-not-sure” would be more accurate, but not as catchy.
- Any “news” coverage beyond the basics (and sometimes even the basics) are characterized by phrases like “This is what we know so far…” “We think…” “There may have been…” “Details are still sketchy (at this point)…” and, when any kind of maybe terrorist-related attack has occurred, “ISIS.”
- Most importantly, this coverage only tells us things that any reasonably informed person already knows about these kinds of events, especially man-made disasters like terrorist attacks, while the heightening fear/panic associated with those crises.
- In the case of this week’s Manchester attack, all we know from news outlets in the U.S. as of the day of the incident despite hours and hours of coverage is that the there may have been a suicide bomber as an Ariana Grande concert let out, and that 19-22 people have died. That’s it.
Any accompanying analysis is based on supposition and only states the obvious. Yes, a bombing at the end of any crowded event would be more effective than attempting to get into said event when the security is so tight. All a person has to do is detonate a bomb outside the gathering as it lets out. Yes, terrorist attacks are designed to heighten fear and chaos– this is why it’s called terrorism and not something else. Yes, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are both known for microterrorism. Yes, those people with wounds being carried out to ambulances are injured and scared.
A win-win for ISIS
Many of these suppositions about possible terrorist attacks will turn out to be correct, especially since ISIS is very good at soliciting lone-wolf, micro-terrorism abroad, as is Al-Qaeda, and so may be responsible for Manchester attack. However, ISIS isn’t the only group out there, as is evinced by the amount of times that news organizations have gotten things wrong.
But, anyone who has been watching or reading news coverage of any possible terrorist attack in the West over the past two years has seen that said incident is initially and immediately attributed to ISIS, full stop.
Cyberattacks and suspicious deaths = Russia, and bombings/low-skill microterrorism = ISIS.
The difference between the recent reporting on cyberattacks, money laundering, and assassinations that news outlets have been attributing to Russia and violent attacks attributed to Islamist terrorists is that the analyses of Russian activities have been based on evidence and extensive paper trails (although I am generalizing here), whereas all we need for journalists to claim the incident on behalf of ISIS is the bombings/low-skill microterrorism equation stated above.
However, if ISIS (Al-Qaeda is frequently left out of the equation in news coverage as of the past year, which doesn’t make them happy) isn’t responsible, this event is still a win for them. They get all the publicity they want without any real effort, and publicity is the bread and butter of any terrorist organization post-major attack.
This is what makes pre-fact news so problematic when it comes to coverage of possible incidences of terrorism– by repeating and repeatedly showing (perhaps more importantly) a set of “facts,” usually characterized by those elements discussed above, (death tolls and injuries) followed by obvious analysis based on supposition, it only ingrains in our minds the turmoil, chaos, and, yes, terror, of a crisis while associating that crisis with ISIS (for now, although this will change depending on the landscape of extremist groups).
As an added benefit for them, ISIS can use the news coverage as a recruitment tool in their next video.
See? Look how powerful we are. All these reporters are talking about us. We were able to strike at the heart of the West through the effort of only one martyr.
Come join us.
** ISIS has indeed taken responsibility for the bombing.