Gabriel Weimann on Terrorism and the Media

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Gabriel Weimann, alone among 'terror' experts (as far as I am aware), has attempted to study media effects in this area.[1] Like other 'terror experts', Weimann has argued that

Press attention appears to be sufficient to enhance the status of the people, problem, or cause behind a terrorist event. Terrorists' success in attracting media attention may then guarantee world-wide awareness and recognition of the political, racial, or, religious problem that caused the event (Weimann 1983:44)

In a later study he concluded that his results 'provide abundant evidence to the agenda-setting and status conferral functions of media coverage' (Weimann 1990:23). According to Weimann 'what is surprising' is the 'image improving effect' of media coverage. Weimann talks of the 'world-wide recognition' of the problems which cause 'terrorism' and the improvement of image which results from media exposure, yet his research singularly fails to provide support for such statements This is largely because of his slippery use of concepts such as 'image' and 'recognition' and inadequate conceptualisation of the field of study.

Weimann carried out two separate studies with 80 undergraduates from the University of Haifa, and 'a random sample of 200 Israelis, all Adult Jews' (Weimann, 1983; 1990). He asked both sets to complete a questionnaire on attitudes to 'terrorism', then in the case of the undergraduates split them into 'matched groups' (1983:40). One was designated the control group for the first of two case studies and the other control for the second. The events used were the hijacking of a Dutch train by south Moluccans in 1975 and the hijacking of a TWA plane by Croatians in 1976. The research groups were given a selection of press cuttings from an Israeli daily newspaper, which 'paralleled everyday coverage by providing the full account of the sequence of events' (1983:40). The two case study 'terrorist' events were selected to be 'remote in time, location and socio-political distance' from the respondents (Weimann 1983:40). The second study was largely similar except that it also exposed respondents to television reporting of the two 'terrorist' events and asked the research and control groups additional questions about perceptions of the incidents.

As Edward Herman has pointed out, the clippings given to the groups were not a random set and were from only one newspaper:

'Weimann does not even claim that they were either complete or randomly selected. They seem to have been selected for information coverage. But many media comments are emotional rather than factual. Without a random set, the method is biased and without scientific value' (Herman 1988:63)

Weimann assumes that the media promote the cause of the terrorists by explaining it in news reporting. He writes that 'media coverage of terrorist events must explain the motive' of the 'terrorists' (Weimann 1990:27). In fact this is simply wishful thinking for which he has no evidence. It is clear that television news does not regularly explain the causes of those groups which it defines as terrorist. Indeed the major critique of television news and press coverage of political violence has been that it tends to concentrate on violence at the expense of background and context. In a study of the New York Times and the London Times, Kelly and Mitchell conclude, in a far from unique statement, that news reports were 'sapping terrorism of it's political content' and that 'less than 10 percent of the coverage in either newspaper dealt in even the most superficial way with the grievances of the terrorists' (Kelly and Mitchell 1981:287; See also Dobkin 1992; Elliot 1977; Knight and Dean 1982; Paletz et al 1982a; 1982b)

Following exposure to the press cuttings and TV reports the experimental groups were consistently more likely than the control groups to agree with statements such as 'the problem which caused the terrorist act is important'; 'the problem should have been covered by the mass media': 'the problem should be solved by international institutions'; 'people should know about this event and its causes'; 'I would like to know more about this subject' from this Weimann concludes that 'the observed difference between the [experimental and control] groups provide abundant evidence to the agenda-setting and status conferral functions of media coverage' (Weimann 1990:23). Later he refers to the 'image-improving effect' which his studies reveal (1990:26). This is a radical overstatement of his findings.

Weimann's use of terms such as 'image' and 'recognition', 'enhance the status' is problematic. To 'recognise' the name of a 'terrorist' group such as the IRA is not the same thing as granting them 'recognition' as legitimate entities. The recognition of the PLO at the United Nations as the 'sole legitimate representative' of the Palestinians which so exercises Weimann, as an Israeli academic, is quite simply not the same as recognising that the people who took over a Dutch train are from South Molucca. As Herman has put it

'Weimann confuses status conferral and initial recognition... An image must be changed if one never heard of a group previously and now reads of it's existence and actions. The image is reorganised from a blank to a something, even if that something is negative' (Herman 1988:63).

It is perfectly clear that regarding the 'problem which caused the event' as important is not at all the same thing as being in sympathy or support of the organisation which carried out the hijacking. Nor is recognising the existence of a group or believing that the problem which caused its existence should be solved the same as supporting that group or of iunderstanding the ideology and objectives of the organisation in the way that the group, itself, would wish (Schlesinger 1981). Such slippery thinking is common amongst counterinsurgency thinkers in Britain and the US (cf. Alexander 1979). It also appears to exist within the ranks of liberal Israeli social scientists.[2]

The most fundamental question is, if the media have an image improving effect on 'terrorists', why is it that Western public opinion appears to be overwhelmingly opposed to organisations defined in the media as 'terrorist'. (Hewitt 1992)[3] Moreover, Weimann's respondents were 'very homogenous' in their views on 'terrorism' and they mostly 'objected' to 'terrorism' (Weimann 1983:42) both before and after the experiment. The question which then arises is, if the media have such a strong improving effect on the image of 'terrorists', why do his respondents have such a negative view of them in the first place? Unless they can come up with better evidence and clearer thinking such writers ought to desist from making statements about media influence and cease their lobbying for repression of the media.[4]

Notes and bibliography


  1. This page features a critique of Weimann's work on the effects of media coverage of terrorism from David Miller (1994), Don't Mention the War : Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media London: Pluto, p. 250-253, reproduced with permission from the author.
  2. According to Bruck 'Weimann considers himself on the left of the political spectrum in his country, has contacts with and (sympathy for such movements as Peace Now) and is quite aware of the imperatives for a progressive political practice' (Bruck 1988a: ix).
  3. Hewitt cites a 1983 poll in which only 3% of the sample admitted to considering the IRA as 'freedom fighters' (Hewitt 1992:201).
  4. Weimann has claimed that his suggestions for media control do not involve 'repression'. He says 'there is a call for guidelines and policies - all created and adopted by the media on a voluntary basis and not for dictates, censorship and repression' (Weimann 1988b:84). As we saw in Chapter One such 'voluntary agreements' have indeed resulted in censorship, and guidelines, or the threat of them, are enough to severely constrain the media.


  • Bruck, Peter (1988a) 'Preface: NewsMedia and Terrorism' in Peter Bruck (ed.) The News Media and Terrorism, Discussion Document Series, Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Communication, Culture and Society, Carleton University.
  • Dobkin, Bethami A. (1992) Tales of Terror: Television News and the construction of the Terrorist Threat, New York: Praeger.
  • Elliot, Philip (1977) 'Reporting Northern Ireland: A Study of News in Britain, Ulster and the Irish Republic', in in UNESCO (ed) Media and Ethnicity, Paris:UNESCO. *Herman, Edward S. (1988) 'The Use and Abuse of Terrorism - A Comment', in Peter Bruck (ed.) The News Media and Terrorism, Discussion Document Series, Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Communication, Culture and Society, Carleton University.
  • Hewitt, Christopher (1992) 'Public's Perspectives' in David L. Paletz and Alex P. Schmid (eds) Terrorism and the Media: How researchers, terrorists, government, press, public, victims view and use the media, London: Sage.
  • Kelly, M.J. and T.H. Mitchell (1981) ‘Transnational Terrorism and the Western Elite Press’,. Political Communication and Persuasion 1(3): 269–96.
  • Knight, G. and Dean, T. (1982) 'Myth and the Structure of News', Journal of Communication, Spring, pp. 145-161.
  • Paletz, David, Ayanian, John, and Fozzard, Peter (1982a) 'Terrorism on TV News: The IRA, the FALN and the Red Brigades', in William C. Adams, Television Coverage of International Affairs, Ablex, Norwood, New Jersey.
  • Paletz, David, Peter A Fozzard and John Z Ayanian, (1982b) 'The IRA, the Red Brigades and the FALN in the New York Times', Journal of Communication. 32, 2, Spring : 162-171.
  • Schlesinger, Philip (1981) '"Terrorism", the Media and the Liberal-Democratic State: A Critique of the Orthodoxy', Social Research. 48, 1 : 74-99.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1983) 'The Theater of Terror: Effects of Press Coverage', Journal of Communication. 33, 1, : 38-45.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1985) 'Terrorists of Freedom Fighters? Labelling Terrorism in the Israeli Press', Political Communication and Persuasion. 2(4) : 433-445.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1987) 'Conceptualizing the Effects of Mass-Mediated Terrorism', Political Communication and Persuasion. 3 : 213-216.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1987) 'Media Events: The Case of International Terrorism', Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 31(1) Winter : 21-39.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1988a) 'Mass Mediated Theatre of Terror - Must the Show Go On?', in Peter Bruck (ed.) The News Media and Terrorism, Discussion Document Series, Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Communication, Culture and Society, Carleton University.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1988b) 'Critics in the Theatre of Terror - Weimann's Reply', in Peter Bruck (ed.) The News Media and Terrorism, Discussion Document Series, Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Communication, Culture and Society, Carleton University.
  • Weimann, Gabriel (1990) '"Redefinition of Image": The Impact of Mass-Mediated Terrorism', International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2(1):16-29.
  • Weimann, Gabriel and Hans-Bernd Brosius, (1989) 'The Predictability of International Terrorism: A Time-Series Analysis', Terrorism. 11 : 491-502.