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Faculty book explores terrorism and the press

In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, many U.S. media outlets abandoned their “watchdog” roles in favor of patriotic cheerleading, the consequences of which are still being felt. Those effects and more are examined in “Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship,” a new book co-authored by associate professor Brooke Barnett.

Published in January by Peter Lang, the book is the first in the Mediating American History series, edited by Elon University professor David Copeland. Barnett wrote the book with Amy Reynolds, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Indiana University.

What distinguishes the work from previous books on media and terrorism is how Barnett and Reynolds approach coverage from the journalistic standpoint, a mindset that previous authors have either downplayed or ignored. And their research takes a long view of terrorism, establishing from the first chapter that no single definition exists.

“It is important to talk about the definition of terrorism because it is contested among all the interested parties,” Barnett says. “I’m not sure if the American public thinks or cares about any of these issues at all, but that might be true of many issues brought up in academic books.”

In fact, the authors say, that lack of a definition is problematic for media or, as they deconstruct the cliché, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The word often is used in reference to political violence, though a particular act that results in death or destruction may not have been meant to cause fear in a civilian populace.

As media conflate terrorism with political violence, the word becomes a catchall phrase and, eventually, a buzzword used as a political attack. Burnett and Reynolds recount a 2004 television interview featuring Richard Perle, an adviser in the Bush administration, who accused Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh as being “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist” because of his reporting on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

“Precision in word use matters because words matter,” Barnett says. “Press criticism can shed light on rhetorical flourishes used by government officials that are taken whole cloth and put directly into news coverage … Governmental words and phrases can frame news coverage of issues and event.”

The book also explores the difference in coverage between the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the 2005 bus and Underground bombings in England. By contrasting reports from CNN and the BBC, as well as initial reports between the New York Times, USA Today, the London Guardian and The Times of London, the authors draw certain conclusions about the American media and its counterparts in Great Britain.

Brooke Barnett

For example:

• The British took a “stiff upper lip” approach to their initial coverage of 2005 attacks, urging the public not to panic and to continue with daily routines. Whereas American journalists expressed shock at unfolding events, in part because of the magnitude of what they were witnessing on Sept. 11, terror attacks are nothing new in the United Kingdom.

• American journalists offered more speculation about the government response to the Sept. 11 attacks even before the towers fell in lower Manhattan. They also treated the attacks as “acts of war,” where British media saw the 2005 bombings as criminal behavior that required police investigation, not military action.

• The American public is torn when asked about the media. Surveys indicate that people want journalists to be aggressive in questioning government officials, except, it seems, when the nation is in crisis. A backlash against American media following Sept. 11 was attributed to reporters challenging the statements and motives of government leaders who were advocating particular courses of action. The media backed off, debate was stifled, and the nation eventually went to war.

“There are key differences in conversation, debate and even humor in Britain and the U.S.,” Barnett says. “You find much more acceptance for pointed remarks that would be seen as perhaps even rude in the U.S.

“Listen to BBC radio interviews. Government officials are interrupted and pressed on the issues. It is all quite civil, really, not this huge shout down where no one talks or listens but really gets closer to the real issues at hand. I don’t believe it is because they have better interview skills, but rather that the audience is somehow more willing to accept that critical lens.”

Barnett’s colleagues praised her work and say she “is the epitome of an Elon teacher-scholar whose research contributes to being an outstanding teacher.”

“Dr. Barnett and her co-author point out that an important element of a terrorist's strategy is to generate enormous news coverage of a deadly act, thus the press fulfill the terrorist's objectives at the very same time they are serving the public's need to know what is happening in the world,” said Paul Parsons, dean of the School of Communications at Elon. “She is highly respected and admired by students because of her intellectual depth and her student-centeredness.”

Barnett taught as an adjunct instructor in the School of Journalism at Indiana University before earning her Ph.D. She came to Elon in 2001 and now heads the Elon Documentary Program. Barnett and Reynolds are also authors of a co-edited volume, Communication and Law: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Research, and numerous journal articles and book chapters.

Barnett also authored The War on Terror and the Wars in Iraq in the Greenwood American War Reporting series. Her research has appeared in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism & Mass Communication Monographs, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media and Visual Communication Quarterly, among other publications.

She was the recipient of 2002 research grant from the National Association of Broadcasters, along with Connie Book, associate dean in the School of Communications.


Eric Townsend,
2/13/2009 8:21 AM