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Friday, June 16, 2006

News Coverage Granger Causes Terrorism

Bruno Frey and Dominic Rohner find bi-directional causality between newspaper reports of terrorism and acts of terrorism:

What's Black and White and Red All Over?, by Richard Morin, Washington Post: More ink equals more blood, claim two economists who say that newspaper coverage of terrorist incidents leads directly to more attacks. It's a macabre example of win-win in what economists call a "common-interest game," say Bruno S. Frey of the University of Zurich and Dominic Rohner of Cambridge University.

"Both the media and terrorists benefit from terrorist incidents," their study contends. Terrorists get free publicity... The media, meanwhile, make money "as reports of terror attacks increase newspaper sales and the number of television viewers."

The researchers counted direct references to terrorism between 1998 and 2005 in the New York Times and Neue Zuercher Zeitung, a respected Swiss newspaper. They also collected data on terrorist attacks around the world during that period. Using a statistical procedure called the Granger Causality Test, they attempted to determine whether more coverage directly led to more attacks.

The results, they said, were unequivocal: Coverage caused more attacks, and attacks caused more coverage -- a mutually beneficial spiral of death that they say has increased because of a heightened interest in terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

One partial solution: Deny groups publicity by not publicly naming the attackers, Frey said. But won't they become known anyway through informal channels such as the Internet? Not necessarily, Frey said. "Many experiences show us that in virtually all cases several groups claimed responsibility for a particular terrorist act..."

The CBS blog Public Eye adds:

Economists: Print The News, Pay The Price, by Brian Montopoli, Public Eye: ...First off, I'm not sure why one needs a PhD in economics to determine what appears to be common sense: More people are interested in the news when there's a terror attack, pushing newspaper sales and television viewership higher, and terrorists become better known when they commit such attacks.

As for the Granger Causality Test itself, it entails a complicated regression analysis... I am not qualified to dispute the economists' conclusions. But ... This, in particular, struck me: "The results, they said, were unequivocal..." Unequivocal? That's quite a determination for a study with what to me seems a relatively small sample size... I am skeptical of the notion that that were enough data to prove an unequivocal correlation, particularly in light of all of the other variables at play.

Frey suggests a solution to the problem he identifies: Don't publicly identify terrorists, at least until after their conviction. Of course, as [the Washington Post story] points out, the Internet would complicate any such an attempt. And there's also the matter of the value of the self-censorship – would it be worth it to deny people such information? If the correlation is unequivocal, as the researchers claim, you could perhaps make the case that it is a worthwhile trade-off. But I think we should be extremely hesitant to embrace the idea that refusing to publicly acknowledge the identity of our attackers will somehow make them go away.

Unequivocal is too strong a word for a statistical outcome, there is always room for questions when causality tests are conducted, but the intent is to convey that the results are highly significant.

Like all of us, I've wondered if the news media causes crime, copycat crime in particular, and also wondered if it would continue of it weren't reported. But I am not in favor of restricting what can be published in the news.

Newspapers don't kill people. People kill people.

    Posted by on Friday, June 16, 2006 at 12:57 AM in Economics, Press, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (11)

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