Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
There has been persistent debate among scholars regarding the relationship between terrorism and media over a long period. The present research was undertaken to understand how different English-language newspapers in India cover terrorism news, particularly the 2006 train blasts and the 2008 Mumbai attacks (known as the 26/11 attacks). The literature around this topic presented a substantial body of work done by foreign scholars using foreign print media. There was a dearth of analysis of the coverage surrounding the two attacks by Indian scholars using Indian print media. Therefore, the texts chosen for this study are from three widely-read Indian newspapers — The Times of India, The Hindu, and The Indian Express. These newspapers were chosen for their potentiality of high impact due to their popularity among the Indian English-speaking public. This research hopes to explore the difference of news coverage through a textual analysis of articles chosen from the online archives of the three newspapers. In doing so, it hopes to understand the nature of the coverage of terrorism in Indian print media. This study is important because it provides an insight into how Indian media operate in a politically charged and sensitive environment such as the one in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The findings demonstrate that there are two ways that the news media function during such a time. Firstly, as an aid to the government and a soft power tool in maintaining peace and national security. Secondly, as a medium that could lead to further perpetuation of fear through the use of certain dramatic imagery and hyperbolic language, hence also unintentionally contributing to the terrorists’ agenda. The study maintains that while there are key differences between the reportage of the three newspapers such as language and style, the key similarity between the three is that they all follow an identifiable pattern of an increased number of hard news stories in the immediate aftermath to human interest stories in the later phases of the attack.
The news media have always played an important role in society. As platforms for information and dialogue, they are especially essential in a democracy where they form a channel of communication between the State and the masses. In order to maintain a balance between this power and the responsibility to inform, media must follow their own code of ethics. Every piece of news can be told differently and the manner in which it is told influences the public’s perception of the event. The news coverage centered around terrorism is particularly interesting due to it being a highly mediated event (Devaney, 2013) and hence the ‘need for orientation’ usually being high.
This research paper inquires into how different Indian newspapers cover terrorism, especially keeping in mind the 2006 Mumbai train blasts and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. India has experienced terrorist attacks since 1980 but these two stood out because of the extent of their impact in terms of civilian casualties (Rabasa et al., n.d.) and their target location of Mumbai which garnered them immediate attention from the government as well as the national and international media houses.
On July 11, 2006, a series of seven RDX bombs exploded on the western line of Mumbai’s local train network, killing 209 people and injuring more than 800 (“Recap of 2006”, 2017). The overall impact was devastating, but not half as much as the one that came next on 26 November, 2008. On this day, 10 terrorists strategically attacked four key areas among others: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), Nariman House, Trident-Oberoi Hotel and the Taj Hotel (Rabasa et al., n.d.) The attacks killed 172 people and left Mumbai scarred (Rabasa et al., n.d.)
This research focuses on print media, particularly the available online archives of the three newspapers chosen. This is mainly due to the methodological limitation of not being able to access the physical archives of the three papers that were situated in cities different to that of the location of the study (Pune, India). Print media was chosen over broadcast media, despite television being the primary source of information for masses at the time because the researcher intended to focus on the written language to analyze the pattern in the nature of the coverage. An analysis of television news would take into consideration the mise-en-scène of each news package and would have added an additional layer to the study. However, it was not possible to include such an analysis within the limited research time that was available for the study.
For the purpose of this study, three English language dailies were chosen: The Times of India, The Hindu, and The Indian Express. The three newspapers chosen are household names across the country and also have online archives of their newspapers dating from 2001, 2000, and 1997 respectively.
According to Nazir Hussain, the media have emerged as potential actors in politics and in this manner, have adopted the power and the potential to “influence global structure” (2008). Media’s place as a soft power tool in a nation’s national security validates media ability to not only shape public opinion but also government decision making. Therefore, the study aims to analyze the nature of terrorism coverage through the use of two overarching themes that present this power: the media’s role in national security and the portrayal of terrorists.
In the days following the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the Indian news media were heavily criticized for being “overly dramatic, sensationalist and quick to report live exclusives of unconfirmed rumors” (Pepper, 2008). Although most criticism was directed towards broadcast media, some of it did spill over onto the print media as well.
The issues in media coverage of terrorism fundamentally arise from the fact that there is no single definition of the word (Marthoz, 2017). UNESCO’s handbook for journalists calls it a “catchall” word and acknowledges that there are several definitions of terrorism each emphasizing specific points that reflect their own political or moral approach (Marthoz, 2017).
The 2008 Mumbai attacks were among the major terrorist attacks after 9/11 that were extensively covered by the media. In studying the analysis of coverage under the framework of press nationalism done by The Dawn, New York Times, Times of London, and The Hindu, Hariwardhan Reddy Jannepally found that national interests of each nation played a role in the way that the event was covered by the different newspapers (Jannepally, 2010). This reiterates the point made about media being important actors in the maintenance of national security of a nation. The public opinion on coverage of the same event was judged in another research that studied the coverage by leading Indian newspapers and its impact on people (M. Neelamalar, 2009). It found that 58% of the public interviewed believed that the newspaper medium had been biased and 61% stated that the newspapers had sensationalized the issue (M. Neelamalar, 2009).
The literature surrounding this topic is limited in two ways. Firstly, there is extensive work done on the coverage surrounding 26/11 but none regarding the 2006 train blasts. Secondly, most of the analysis of media coverage around 26/11 is also of western newspapers and media, especially in the US and the UK. Through a review of literature, it can be observed that even though there has been research done on the analysis of media coverage of Indian terrorist events, a gap exists in an Indian media-centric study of the same. Therefore, it is important to study the nature of terrorism coverage by the Indian media in order to gain a better understanding of the way that the Indian media operates within the society.
Methodology and Sources
The methodology used in this research is textual analysis. The text is generally understood as “something that we make meaning from” (Mckee, 2003, p. 4) and therefore includes everything from film to newspaper articles. As J. Bainbridge (2008) mentions, media texts are “naturally polysemic: open to many interpretations” (Bainbridge, 2008, p. 228). A text can be broken down into smaller units called signs. According to Saussure’s theory, a sign is anything that produces meaning and along with a signifier, creates the signified. Bainbridge (2008) states that the link between the signifier and the signified is often arbitrary, especially in the media where the industry and the individuals “responsible for these texts attempt to manipulate” (Bainbridge, 2008, p. 228) that link to create an intended meaning. Therefore, within the texts chosen, the overall structure, including syntax, word choice, tone, authorial voice, and headlines among others, is carefully considered in order to understand both the denotation and connotation of the individual signs as well as the complete text. In addition to that, the structuralist roots of the method also call for a study of the context in which the text was produced and therefore factors such as time and date and the placement of the text within the larger news from that day have also been noted.
For the purpose of this research, news articles from the online news archives of The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Hindu have been used as primary texts. The Times of India, with its highest circulation rate, enjoys the status as one of the most popular names associated with Indian print news. The Indian Express, also a popular newspaper, derives its strength from its structured and in depth coverage of events. Lastly, The Hindu has a long legacy of quality journalism and a wide, dedicated reader base. It is also credited for always putting “news above noise, sense above sensation, and credibility over chaos” (Singh, 2017).
Since the case studies chosen for the research are the 2006 Mumbai train blasts and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the news articles have been chosen from the day succeeding the first days of the attacks, that is 12 July, 2006, and 27 November, 2008, till two months after — 12 September, 2006, and 27 January, 2008). The two-month period was chosen to ensure a substantial body of work to analyze and draw inferences from about the coverage in the different newspapers.
Media have the power to build confidence or promote mistrust among people on several issues (Hussain, 2008). Media not only shape the perception of the public but also of world leaders and “on the basis of these perceptions, the political actors formulate the policies, especially during the situations of crisis or political changes, i.e. elections” (Hussain, 2008, p. 2). There are several hypotheses about the effects of media but as stated by Nazir Hussain, the most applicable one that describes the manner in which it exercises its potential is that “it simply pays attention to some issues and neglects others” (Hussain, 2008, p. 4). The following section analyzes the print media coverage of the 2006 train blasts and the 2008 Mumbai attacks from the lens of Hussain’s argument. It does so by categorizing the articles into larger themes, namely the media’s role in national security and the portrayal of terrorists in the media.
Media’s Role in National Security
As important actors in the global scenario, media are significant players in the national security of the nation. National security, like terrorism, does not have a single definition, but for the purpose of this research it can be broadly understood as “the ability of a state to cater for the protection and defense of its citizenry” (Osisanya, 2014). Segun Osisanya derives this definition from Samuel Makinda’s definition of security as the “preservation of norms, rules, institutions and values of society” (Osisanya, 2014). Terrorism is one of the commonly seen threats to the national security of any nation as it always carries a political agenda. Media are often viewed as wielding soft power in terms of national security and therefore in times of a threat such as terrorism, the role of the media to inform and maintain stability is enhanced. Media not only have the duty to “project the developing activities in a particular area but to offer a comprehensive picture…” (Hussain, 2008, p. 4).
However, media are double-edged swords where on one hand they can prove to be weapons against the terrorists, on the other, media can unconsciously aid them by perpetuating fear. Therefore, the media must be extremely careful in their coverage of terrorist attacks so as to strike a balance between these two possible functions.
2006 train blasts
The Indian newspapers, during and after the 2006 train blasts were an important source of information for the public. They exercised their power to provide holistic information through the use of different tools such as language and images but in some way also contributed to the perpetuation of fear.
The serial train blasts in Mumbai on 11th July, 2006, took place when the media’s attention was dominantly directed towards another tragedy that had occurred on the same day. Almost 3500 miles away in Srinagar, five grenade attacks had injured 35 people and killed 7 tourists that morning. The blasts that ensued around 6:24 p.m. in Mumbai on the same evening therefore caught the nation by surprise, including the media whose gaze shifted to the unassuming business capital that had not been rocked by such terror since 1993. It soon became a national concern as all major cities around the country went on high alert.
The shock and confusion of the public was mirrored and arguably enhanced by the reportage of the attack by the media. The immediacy and graveness of the situation was captured by The Times of India within the first two hours of the attack by articles that were written in less than 100 words such as “PM reviews security situation after blasts” (2006). This article spoke of the reactions of authorities such as the Prime Minister and the Home Minister towards the Mumbai as well as the Kashmir blasts. All the articles released by The Times of India immediately after the attack were short, direct and extremely factual. For example, another article titled, “Stations on target” (2006) was less than 50 words and exclusively listed the different stations and the time that they had been targeted.
These two articles represent the nature of coverage carried out by The Times of India during the initial phases of the attack. They covered the blasts from various angles, including an economic aspect with articles such as “Markets likely to absorb shock” (2006) and “Market triumphs over terror” (2006) among others. By doing this, the media, as stated by Hussain were performing their duty of offering a comprehensive picture during a crisis, especially since a terrorist act was a threat to the national security of the nation.
The articles from the first few days of the blasts were mostly limited to 100-400 words in length and these, mostly taken from agencies like Press Trust of India (PTI) and Reuters, were in a relatively neutral language. The focus of their stories were usually the authorities, and their coverage could be labelled as being ‘top-down’ — most of their articles had statements and reactions from national as well as world leaders as compared to the common man. Although the coverage did include human interest stories, the focus was clearly on hard news with only 5 out of 21 articles on 12th July, 2006, carrying stories about the victims or the survivors. This could be seen as one manner in which the media were performing their roles as tools of soft power by representing the views of the authorities and the fact that they had control over the situation. This could have been an attempt at projecting stability during a time when the city was in chaos.
In contrast to the top-down and dominantly factual coverage carried out by The Times of India, the other two print publications namely, The Indian Express and The Hindu appealed more to the emotional aspect of their readers. The Hindu’s coverage of the blasts was more focused on how the common people had experienced it. Therefore, most of their articles had direct quotes and stories by the survivors of the blasts. For example, one of the first articles about the attacks released on the front page of The Hindu on 12th July, 2006 titled, “Terror strikes Mumbai, over 147 killed,” had personal accounts by two people who had been on the trains in which the blasts had occurred. As opposed to The Times of India, The Hindu had an amalgamation of perspectives. They capitalized on the human interest value and used it effectively in most of their articles. However, similar to The Times of India, The Hindu also made sure to paint a complete image of the attack on its front page with other articles such as “Mumbai will prevail – Deshmukh” (2006) and “People come together to help victims” (2006). This hinted at a positive relationship between the people and the government and also showcased the ‘spirit’ of the nation, hence safeguarding the idea of an ‘unbreakable India.’
The Indian Express’ coverage of the blasts was similar to that of The Hindu, especially the focus on human interest stories. The language in particular was similarly hyperbolic and shocking, for example there were headlines such as “Terror Tuesday” (2006) and “I thought a fan had fallen but suddenly the roof split open” (Kirpal & Yadav, 2006). The language used was very visual and evoked sympathy, but unlike The Hindu, it also added an element of fear by providing such graphic imagery. Therefore, the dramatic language not only expressed the terror but also contributed to it. The Indian Express’ focus on the reactions from authorities was also significantly less in comparison with The Times of India and The Hindu. Therefore, the coverage could be classified as ‘bottom-up’ with the accounts of common people holding more importance to the publication as opposed to the opinions of the authorities.
A point of similarity between all three newspapers was their use of dramatic images. The picture used along with the article, “Terror Tuesday” (2006) was that of a bombed train at Matunga station. It was a startling image that showed the destruction in a graphic manner, with one complete side of the compartment shown missing. The most alarming aspect of the visual was the clothes and other possessions of hurt passengers shown hanging from the floor of the train. Therefore, along with the arresting headline, the article reiterated the shock value by employing an image from the site that not only showed the demolition of the train but also acknowledged the dramatic loss of life. The same photograph was also used in articles by The Times of India and The Hindu. The nature of this coverage provided a glimpse into the ironic position of the media, where in following their duty to inform the citizens about the attacks, they were also contributing to the creation of a fear-conducive environment thereby aiding the terrorists’ agenda of spreading global fear.
The previously discussed themes prevalent in the coverage above reflected one of media’s many responsibilities as an essential tool for aiding in the maintenance of national security. The human interest stories and the dramatization helped to inform the public about the attacks, despite the newspapers sometimes breaking the balance between information and further perpetuation of terror. The role that the media played in this coverage was mainly that of informing and morale building. As an information outlet responsible for providing the public as well as the leaders with a comprehensive picture, the media also covered a lot of stories about the possibility of other attacks, counter-terrorism strategies, and the acknowledgement of the help provided by other countries at the time. However, there were instances in the coverage of the blasts where the reportage by the media was very questionable. For example, an article published by The Times of India identified and described a spot near the Jarimari area of Andheri in Mumbai as “every terrorist’s delight” (V, 2006). It spoke of the contrast between the tight security of the airport and the practically insecure hilltop. It also revealed the area to have an easy entry into the airport grounds and talked about the loose foundation of the boundary wall by disclosing that “nearly 100 odd shanties stand thick, just across the airport’s boundary wall, which has been broken in many places to gain access to a site where work on extending a taxi way is on” (V, 2006). Although the article did bring to light an important security issue, the ethics of running the story could be debated. It could be argued that the manner in which it was presented could have drawn attention to it from terrorist groups and unintentionally provided them with the access and information of an easy target. Therefore, it could be seen as increasing the possibility of a threat, hence compromising national security.
Within the latter coverage of the event, another theme that was popular in relation to national security was the coverage of foreign reactions. For example, The Hindu published a story titled, “India, Pakistan to share evidence on 7/11 blasts” (2006) which covered the exchange between Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Mohammad Khan, about the sharing of information regarding 7/11 from their respective investigations. Other stories by The Hindu also covered terrorism related incidents in other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Their inclusion of such articles on the front page showed an indication towards them trying to paint terrorism as a global issue whereas the others were still heavily focused on looking inward at Mumbai. The article, “US warns of terror attacks in India” (2006) also hinted at the indication that the world was watching India closely and the train blasts could be looked at as a warning sign for the rest of the world.
2008 Mumbai attacks
On 26 November, 2008, a group of terrorists entered the city of Mumbai via sea and conducted eight coordinated attacks killing 166 people and injuring 300 others (Majumdar, 2018). The magnitude of the attacks was equated to that of 9/11 and captured the world’s attention for the next few days. The factor that made it distinct from the previously conducted attacks such as the 2006 train blasts was the intent to target westerners which resulted in 28 deaths of foreign nationals (Majumdar, 2018). This heightened the issue as a severe compromise of national security which invited scrutiny from governments across the world and deepened India’s responsibility to identify the perpetrators and ensure justice.
In the aftermath of the attack, the media were criticized of crossing the ethical boundaries of journalistic integrity and compromising national security. This was, as identified by critics, due to the lack of a proper structure and protocol that would dictate how news had to be covered in such times of crisis. Although the electronic media were primarily blamed, the print media were also held responsible for freely advertising the needs of the terrorists and sensationalizing the issue to an extent where it created fear and insecurity in the minds of the public (Maraimalal, 2009).
Similar to the print media coverage of the 2006 train blasts, the coverage of the 2008 attacks mirrored the shock of the nation. However, compared to the former, the headlines used during the coverage of the latter were far more sensational in all three newspapers. For example, The Times of India had headlines such as “Mumbai terror tears here too” (Sharma, 2008) and “Worst-ever terror attack on Mumbai, says Maharashtra Governor” (2008) which are representative of the hyperbolic language used in the reportage. The Indian Express and The Hindu also had similar articles such as “Nation for a mole, as terror hides in a hole” (Kumar, 2008) and “Rash of terror attacks in Mumbai” (2008 ). A possible explanation for such a pattern could be that print news was in heavy competition with other platforms such as television and social media. While television was providing live coverage of the attacks, social media, especially Twitter, was filled with retweets of hostages or live accounts of survivors who had been rescued. Therefore, print media were not just competing with different media platforms, they were competing with time. The newspapers therefore seemed to shift their focus from more factual reporting such as in 2006 to themed reporting. The two dominant themes identified could also be seen as jeopardizing national security because they insisted on negatively framing Pakistan as a possible perpetrator which could have severe consequences such as the deterioration of peaceful relations between the two countries. The second theme was identifying faults within the policies and the institutions of the government itself which could lead to a potential loss of public and foreign trust leading to further panic and demoralization, hence compromising the power of the government to protect its own people.
Indo-Pak relations were on the mend in 2008 with both governments trying to maintain an open mind and consider the other’s opinion. However, the 26/11 attacks brought a swift halt to this effort when it was identified that the terrorists had boarded the boat at Karachi before arriving at Mumbai to cause havoc. The attacks caused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to openly caution Pakistan by saying that “India will not tolerate the use of territories of its neighbours for launching attacks here and there would be a cost if suitable measures are not taken by them” (“Outside group behind”, 2008). This theme was thereafter heavily focused on mainly by two of the three newspapers, The Indian Express and The Times of India. The Times of India released an article on 27 November, 2008, revealing that Pakistan’s role was under scrutiny for the Mumbai attack. This article is important because it cited US security analysts who believed that the claim of the attack by the Deccan Mujahideen was a cover-up because their intent did not match the nature of the attack, especially the focus on western targets (Rajghatta, 2008). It was almost like a justification for the further reportage that focused on Pakistan’s role in the attack. As expected, the next few articles from The Times of India were focused heavily around this theme with headlines such as “Initial information suggests Pak hand in Mumbai attack: Pranab” (PTI, 2008) among others. The aspect of these articles that was different from the coverage by The Indian Express was that it attributed all of its claims to an important external source, such as a government official or security analysts. This added a level of depth to the claims and made them appear plausible. It also invited authority bias from the public because people tend to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure and be more influenced by it (Rezaiezadeh, 2017). Therefore, in this manner they contributed to the pre-existing prejudice against Pakistan in the minds of the public.
Another development that worked against Pakistan’s image was the eventual identification of the perpetrator as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based terrorist organization. This added to the tension in the inter-state dynamic between India and Pakistan. The print media perpetuated this tension by firstly extending the responsibility of the attack from the LeT as a group to the Pakistani nation as a whole. This was done through continuous reiteration of the fact that the “Terrorists came from Karachi via sea to Mumbai” (2008). Although this piece of information did not reveal anything about the Pakistani government’s role in the attack, there were other articles that were constantly backing up that speculation. For example, articles such as “Mumbai terror attacks might derail Indo-Pak peace process” (2008) and “Mumbai attack may trigger Indian military response” (2008) reflected the authorities’ rising suspicion against the nation. Again, it was like the media was providing justification for any future measures that would be taken by India against Pakistan by tilting public opinion against the neighbouring nation. This framing of blame on Pakistan was also enhanced by their coverage of other news related to Pakistan such as “Pak violates ceasefire again, jawan injured in LoC fire” (2008) which wasn’t related to the Mumbai attacks but still framed the nation negatively. The inclusion of this article could be seen as a statement about Pakistan’s possible intentions to harm India.
According to scholars Hannah Haegeland and Ruhee Neog, the importance of news media in government decision making is tied to the role of domestic pressure. Media’s framing of the ‘other’ in an inter-state crisis contributes to public opinion that may have a large influence on national security decision making (2018). Although the media in India may not directly play a part in policy making, they must be seen as important stakeholders who shape the way the public understands and perceives the issue. The 2008 attacks later triggered a major crisis between India and Pakistan which was attributed to an anti-Pakistan sentiment in the nation. This standoff was critical because both were nuclear nations and the world feared that if there was a military attack, it could escalate into the use of nuclear arms. The role of the media in the development of this crisis cannot be downplayed, especially because of anti-Pakistan sentiment being cited as a major trigger.
Media attention is one of the strongest tools for terrorists to further their agenda and this gets amplified when there are foreign targets. This was seen in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that were given undue emphasis among all the terrorist attacks in India across history. One of the reasons may have been the constant coverage of foreign victims that drew attention to the event from across the world. This was intensified when it was revealed that the terrorists were deliberately targeting westerners. The media showed the terrorists’ intent through articles such as “Seven foreigners among 200 taken hostage at Mumbai’s Taj” (PTI, 2008) where it was reported that the terrorists wanted to know whether any hostages were carrying American and British passports. The targeting of westerners garnered the terrorists’ media attention not only from local newsrooms but also from international papers such as The New York Times and The Guardian.
The media made it clear that foreign nationals were being specifically targeted and this, along with the reportage of the inconsistencies in India’s counter terrorism operation painted a negative image of India. Articles in The Hindu had jarring headlines such as “Caught in the crossfire, 9 foreign nationals killed” (2008) along with a close-up of two foreign nationals looking disturbed and covered in the blackness of smoke. The constant coverage and reiteration of the fact that foreigners were being specifically targeted made it seem like they were under grave threat if they entered any part of the country. This was also reiterated by an increased focus on places such as the Taj Hotel, Oberoi-Trident, and Leopold Café that had a larger concentration of foreigners as well as the rich and elite population of Mumbai as opposed to the middle and lower class populated targets such as the CST station and Nariman House. Therefore, compared to the 2006 train blasts, the 2008 Mumbai attacks seemed to have been reported with a greater intensity and viewed as an attack on global peace, rather than just an attack on the city.
While on one hand the media was focused on placing blame externally, newspapers like The Hindu turned their gaze inward and revealed that the government had not acted efficiently after receiving warning about a sea attack from the CIA as early as March 2007 (Kumar, 2008). Another article revealed government sources stating that it was the weaknesses in the police infrastructure that aided the terror attack, which apart from pointing out flaws in the police department, also showed that the government and the police were not in tandem with each other (Swami, 2008). This presented the different bodies of a larger state infrastructure as individual entities and not as a larger whole which showed the inconsistency in the working of the same, hence compromising public trust in the system and therefore by extension, national security.
Portrayal of Terrorists
A large aspect of media coverage on terrorism is about pursuing the news of the individual or group accused of carrying out the attack. The responsibility frame is common throughout the reportage of terrorist attacks because it seeks to answer the incredibly pertinent question of ‘who did it?’ Speculation about the identity of the perpetrators begins immediately after the attack and newspapers have been observed to draw inferences from the ongoing investigations and previous patterns to hypothesize about potential perpetrators. From a list of possible suspects, some newspapers may choose to hold one group more responsible than others and present their opinion explicitly, or, more commonly, in a subtle and understated manner. This may present itself through the number of articles dedicated to each group, the language used in the articles covering the topic and the depth of coverage into the particular terrorist group. Media holds the power to shape public perception and in instances where it may express an opinion in the façade of a fact, it may be viewed as manipulation of thought and hence an infringement on one’s personal freedom. Therefore, assessing the portrayal of the terrorists in newspapers is an important factor that needs to be considered when analyzing terrorism news coverage.
2006 train blasts
The portrayal of terrorists in Indian newspapers after the 2006 train blasts follows an identifiable pattern within the news coverage of the incident. Immediately after the attack, The Times of India was the first to name the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) as the perpetrators of the attack in their article, “LeT, SIMI hand in Mumbai blasts” (2006). This article uses definitive language that frames the two groups as the confirmed perpetrators of the attack, when this had not been confirmed. For example, the article begins by saying, “The terror attack on Mumbai trains was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba and local Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activities…” (“LeT, SIMI hand”, 2006). It places blame on the two groups by the use of ‘was’ which is a definitive word as opposed to speculative phrases such as ‘may’ or ‘could have been’ that would be more appropriate.
The Hindu’s coverage on the other hand reveals the identity of the accused but does not directly place blame. For example, it published articles such as “Lashkar-e-Taiba denies hand” (“Lashkar e Taiba denies hand”, 2006) and “Lashkar conduit arrested, RDX seized” (“Lashkar conduit arrested”, 2006) which presented both sides of the story — while the intelligence sources thought that it was the LeT who caused the attacks, the LeT themselves denied the same. However, the juxtaposition of the two articles together can be interpreted in two different ways. For one, it can be assumed that the two articles had been placed together to provide the readers with alternate perspectives and hence could be an example of objective reporting. But, on the other hand it could also be done to show the irony of the situation wherein while LeT denied the claims, intelligence agencies were still regarding them as a possible suspect, in which case, further creating a negative image of the LeT and shifting the power to the officials. The Indian Express, presented the same information in a more objective manner by mentioning that the linkage of the blasts to LeT and SIMI was only part of the investigation process – “As the hunt for clues begins, gaze shifts to SIMI-LeT ties” (Samanta, 2006). However, they were also the only newspaper to provide a detailed explanation of why the two groups were being framed as the ones responsible for the attack. In the latter phase of coverage, the frequency of articles about the accused groups was higher than those on other aspects in both The Hindu and The Times of India. But, unlike the former who tended to report more about the Lashkar-e-Taiba, The Hindu focused its gaze on SIMI. It published articles such as “9 men held in Jabalpur” (2006), “SIMI members in police custody” (“SIMI members”, 2006) among others.
The sheer number of articles dedicated to each group also reiterated the allegations against them as the attackers. Especially between the reportage by The Times of India and The Hindu, there was continued focus on the LeT and SIMI by the two newspapers even before the LeT was confirmed as the one responsible. The space and the continuity of coverage dedicated to them, from the immediate aftermath of the attack to two months after, helped in their framing as perpetrators. As mentioned above, the articles about the two groups in The Times of India and The Hindu were not always in relation to the blasts, but their constant presence in the coverage could have contributed to the readers drawing an unconscious link between the blasts and the LeT and SIMI. This is because their names became the identifying factor around which the responsibility for the attacks was framed. Hence, the readers had already accepted the LeT as the attackers even before the release of the official statement that confirmed the same.
The trend in the coverage showed that when the immediacy and suddenness of the situation died down, the nature of the stories about the accused shifted from being about the group as a whole to the emotional journey of individual members in order to understand it from a psychological point of view. In this way, the portrayal of terrorists across the three newspapers shifted from evoking hatred to sympathy. In the Hindu, stories such as “New proof on Mumbai blasts” (Swami, 2006) presented a timeline of the life of one of those involved — Feroze Abdul Latif Ghaswala. The profile traced Ghaswala’s journey from his recruitment into Lashkar to the claims of his involvement in the attacks. The narrative style of the article also considerably shifted to a looser structure as compared to the formal inverted pyramid style that had been previously used. Similarly, in The Times of India, the article titled, “7/11 accused Faisal forced to target Mumbai: Police”presents a comparable human story of Faisal Shaikh, one of those accused of the train bombings who was arrested and interrogated by an officer of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (Hafeez, 2006). Certain aspects of his story, such as his limited education – “class XI drop-out,” were emphasized more than others in order to present him in a more sympathetic manner (Hafeez, 2006). This also reiterated the statement made in the headline which said he was “forced” to target Mumbai (Hafeez, 2006), hence shedding light on the minds of the terrorists themselves, and how the whole process is a product of brainwashing and forced action. It also shifts the blame to the ‘masterminds’ of the groups who actually plan and strategize the attacks and then send individuals such as Faisal to risk their life and execute the plan. In the above mentioned article, the author shifted focus from Faisal’s story to that of Azam Chima, the commander of the LeT training camp that Faisal belonged to. Hence, the articles reflected a shift in pattern from general, speculative stories, to stories about individual attackers and the masterminds behind them.
In order to sum up the general portrayal of terrorists in the three newspapers in the aftermath of the 2006 train blasts, it can be said that there was a significant observable pattern. There was a shift from factual and direct reporting to stories that were emotional and held human interest value. The initial coverage portrayed the terrorists in a dehumanizing manner but the succeeding reportage focused on individual stories and presented them in a more sympathetic and human manner, impacting the perception of the public. There was an interesting tension between the manner in which the groups and the individual stories were presented, because there was a clear tone of detachment in the articles about the groups whereas the tone in the individual human interest stories was more personal through the use of longer sentences, descriptive language, and detailed character-building. Hence, the readers went from viewing the entire group as being responsible, to understanding the nuances of a terrorist organization and also recognizing that strategic blame rested in the hands of a few. The perception of the attack as a whole also changed from being viewed only in the context of Mumbai to being viewed in the context of the nation.
2008 Mumbai attacks
The 2008 attacks were identifiably different from any previous attack that Mumbai had experienced. As mentioned before, there was a clear inter-state dynamic between India and Pakistan that was focused on as a theme in the print media coverage. This spilled over to the framing of responsibility for the same and impacted the way that the terrorists were presented in the media. As with the 2006 train blasts, the newspapers were quick to report on any new development and the first piece of information they received about the perpetrators of the attack was through an email sent by a group that called itself ‘Deccan Mujahideen.’ The Times of India first reported about this on 27 November, 2008 in an article titled “Deccan Mujahideen claims Mumbai attacks” (2008) The article was written in strong language that framed the group definitively without leaving any room for speculation. This despite the fact that the email address had not been verified and it could not be said for sure whether they were actually the perpetrators. In contrast to this, both The Hindu and The Indian Express did not report on the identity of the perpetrators till further evidence had been discovered. They simply referred to them as terrorists. Further analysis proved them right because it was discovered that the email was traced back to Pakistan which could not have had a connection to the Deccan Mujahideen, primarily because of their name. Later, the arrested terrorist revealed that they belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the same group that had been responsible for the 2006 train blasts.
In further reportage of the attack, the three newspapers had very distinct trends. The Times of India started with very factual and hard-news-style writing but moved onto capturing terror through dramatic language. One way they did this was by using statements about the terrorists as headlines which not only hinted at the attackers’ intent but also provided an exploration into their identity. For example, some of the articles that were representative of the same were, “They let them go as they were Muslims” (2008) and “They are going to target every group at every place” (2008). Both these articles were accounts by survivors of the attack and hence could also be categorized as human interest stories. The use of victim accounts to describe the terrorists led to exaggerated reporting because it attached the characteristic of evil to them. This was also seen in The Hindu’s reportage which included articles such as “Beastly act, say Muslim bodies” (2008) which added a sense of horror and portrayed the terrorists negatively. This biased reporting through the reiteration of the same format took away from hard facts about the attackers. In this manner, the media contributed to the fear among the public by providing them first-hand accounts from people they could relate to, as opposed to authorities.
One of the most shocking headlines was from The Indian Express which included a quote from a phone conversation between two terrorists. It read, “Hotel jala do, public bhagegi, tum escape kar lena: Karachi told Taj terrorist on phone” (Sarin, 2008). This reflected the very clear intention of the attack which was to mainly incite fear among the public. This statement also partially reveals the manner in which the operation was being conducted and the nature of the terrorists carrying out the attack. The fact that the terrorist at Taj was receiving instructions from a handler in Karachi shows that the attacker was just a puppet of the main organization. Also, he may have been naïve and not realized the extent to which the attack could escalate — but the handler was aware of the situation. This can be understood because the tone of the statement seems nonchalant and almost reassuring. Using this as the headline reveals all of these things about the terrorists and portrays them as crass, heartless, and selfish, but also through closer analysis reflects the intricacies of the hierarchy they must have been operating within.
From general speculation about the involvement of Pakistan and the portrayal of the terrorist group as ‘evil’ and ‘beastly,’ the focus shifted to the story of Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only terrorist to be captured among nine others. The three newspapers mainly focused on trying to paint a holistic picture of him. In the immediate aftermath of the event, he was simply shown as a dangerous threat by revealing that he had killed the three heroes of the nation — Karkare, Salaskar and Kamte. The media portrayed him as the face of the attack even though there had been nine others, and this led to his name becoming synonymous with the memory of the event. After the initial three days of the attack, the focus shifted to trying to identify his roots and his reasons for becoming a terrorist. For example, the Indian Express article, “I accept the truth, this is my son Ajmal” (Dawn Special Report, 2008) was an interview between a journalist and a family in Faridkot that was identified as being Kasab’s family. The article expressed the family’s agony over their son’s doings and revealed the journey that led him to join the LeT. It painted him as a frustrated teenager who stumbled into the world of crime in order to survive and support himself after running away from home. However, apart from this one article, the reportage around Kasab was mainly focused on his court proceedings and the information that was being gathered about the LeT from the interrogations. Unlike the 2006 attacks, the change in the nature of reporting about Kasab did not occur as speedily. This could have been due to the widespread hatred that was still present in the public who may have been resistant to that sympathetic news about Kasab too soon.
To sum up, the print media’s portrayal of the terrorists occurred in two phases. The first phase was when the terrorist group was identified as LeT and the focus was on trying to identify whether Pakistan was involved in the attack, with suggestions that it was. Therefore, the media coverage was focused on finding trends in the terrorists’ roots and intent that would suggest the same. The coverage in the second phase predominantly surrounded Kasab and his confirmed guilt. It was focused on building a narrative around him and the information he was revealing about the attacks. The overall inference that can be drawn from the observed pattern of coverage during the 2008 Mumbai attacks was that it mainly operated in the background of the tension between India and Pakistan. Even the portrayal of terrorists was dictated by the said theme which among others was one of the reasons that gained the event worldwide attention. In all, the 2008 attacks came to be seen as important in the history of global terrorism.
Terrorism, as commonly understood has always had a political intent. According to Richard Payne, “all acts of terrorism are designed to create fear, to cause people to tremble” and they do so by using the technology of global communication to reach people all over the world (Payne, 2017). The role of media has been an important point of discussion in the discourse of terrorism over a long period of time. The research conducted provided an insight into the relationship between the two in the context of India. Media’s role, as gatekeepers of democracy and as tool for maintaining national security was challenged when Mumbai experienced two of the largest terrorist attacks the city has ever seen. The media coverage during the 2006 train blasts was in the aid of maintaining national security by providing information and offering a comprehensive picture of the event. Although there was dramatization involved, especially by The Hindu and The Indian Express, it helped to inform the public about the attacks, despite sometimes breaking the balance between awareness and further spread of terror. This was heavily contrasted by the print media’s reportage of the 2008 attacks where the national security of the nation was constantly questioned by the tension that the media added to the inter-state dynamic of India and Pakistan. Within this coverage, another important pattern that was observed was the way in which the nature of terrorism was portrayed, with a focus on the portrayal of terrorists. In the coverage of both attacks, there was a similar pattern between the three newspapers where they moved from speculation about the identity of and criticism aimed at the accused terrorist groups to the stories of individual terrorists, displaying the forced, dehumanizing, and hierarchal nature of terrorism. One of the limitations that hindered this aspect of the study was the time frame chosen for the news coverage with regards to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Since more human stories about Kasab started being reported only after the first two months of the attack, there was not enough material to prove the pattern stated above with certainty, although the beginnings of it could clearly be observed. Another issue was the lack of access to physical hard copies of the three newspapers, because of which the design and placement of the stories could not be taken into consideration, which could have provided further insights into the topic. Apart from these two limitations above that could be studied as separate topics in the future, another possibility would be analysis of the coverage under different themes, such as the ‘role of metaphors’ in the sensationalism of news. In conclusion, the study aimed to gain an understanding of the terrorism-media relationship in India, and discovered that the media, as stated before act as double-edged swords.
The author would like to acknowledge the guidance and mentorship of Vaidyanatha Gundlupet in the completion of this research.
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