The Incorporation of Terrorism Coverage in Academic Journalism Programs

Article excerpt

This research explores the degree to which journalism programs in the United States have incorporated the subject of terrorism into their curricula. An analysis of journalism and mass communication schools revealed that only a few programs had created journalism courses focusing specifically on terrorism. Those courses established under these programs were quite comprehensive in nature. Potential reasons why more programs have not created terrorism-related journalism courses are discussed.

As noted by Robert Picard, with a few exceptions, it was not until the late 1980s that substantive scholarly articles from mass communication scholars concerning terrorism and the news media began appearing, with comprehensive books on the topic appearing even later.1 This was despite the fact that numerous terrorist events involving U.S. citizens had already occurred, including terrorists murdering an American tourist onboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship, the hijacking of TWA flight 847, and the terrorist bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed several U.S. military personnel. News media covered all these events, and yet little scholarly attention was paid to how they were covered. From a professional standpoint, journalists themselves failed to address how they were covering international terrorism and the importance they placed on the subject. In fact, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, news organizations' attention to international news in general faltered.2 The focus was more on domestic issues and events, especially those of a sensational nature.

According to James Carey, serious consideration of terrorism news coverage by journalists did not come until after September 11, 2001. Carey contended "the decade following the end of the Cold War journalists ... had been on a vacation from reality."3 Even in January of 2001, when the U.S. Commission on National security in the 21st Century released a dire warning that Americans were vulnerable to a terrorist attack within the United States, press coverage was negligible.4 Terrorism simply was not viewed as a major area of news focus. That viewpoint quickly changed on that fateful day in September when terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes to crash into the World Trade Center and the United States Pentagon. With the nation's sense of security destabilized, American news organizations scrambled to understand the attacks' underlying causes and the risks of future attacks.

News organizations now consider terrorism an important area of specialized coverage and, through private and government support, have actively engaged in preparing journalists as "first responders" to acts of terrorism.5 Journalists have always had the difficult task of covering trauma and risk. In providing such coverage, they have served the dual roles of providing necessary information to the public while also offering a sense of reassurance. What makes news coverage of terrorism committed on U.S. soil distinct from coverage of such traumatic events as natural disasters, crime, and accidents, however, is that terrorism is designed to unsettle the nation's basic foundations and spread widespread fear among the public while propagating a particular message. A journalist's personal involvement and perceived risk in covering acts of terrorism are likely heightened. Thus, the knowledge and training needed to cover terrorism go beyond those skills that traditionally have been taught to journalists.

Although news organizations have initiated steps to train their journalists in this specialized area, the question that remained was whether many U.S. journalism schools have also taken up such initiatives. Is such training even widely perceived as necessary within the journalism schools? Since 9/11, the number of scholarly publications on the topic of news coverage of terrorism has dramatically increased. Yet, the extent to which that knowledge is being translated into course material and incorporated into class coursework is still unknown. …