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The problem with Terrorexperts

In special moments of not-knowing – such as the hours leading up to the arrest of the perpetrator of the 22​nd​ of July in Norway – so called experts are used by the media to give an assessment of the situation, reassure viewers, explain contexts, or dispel speculation. At times of uncertainty people yearn for security and statements on which they can rely. They desire an expert opinion.

The state of emergency includes real-time journalism and real-time journalism often includes an expert. Anyone who is marked as an expert in a state of emergency is in a special, powerful position. The expert can speak and is heard.

Two examples from german media: The journalist Elmar Theveßen, who served as an expert on the german public television channel ZDF on July 22, 2011 and Rainald Becker, who fulfilled the role for the other big public television channel ARD. These two men are journalists, who appeared as experts during a certain timeframe. Both, Theveßen and Becker, were harshly critizised in the weeks after the attack. Their coverage of the sitiuation triggered a media debate in Germany. Both journalists were accused of not reporting neutrally on the incident.

„Since the beginning of Western civilization there has been a particular interest in the superior knowledge that experts have in their domain of expertise. The body of knowledge associated with the domain of expertise in which a person is expert is a particular important difference between experts and other individuals.“ 1 is written in ​The Cambride Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

​ In a state of emergency, the described difference between experts and other individuals earns new relevance. The expert is in a position to inform others, to enlight them. But in a situation where noone knows anything, im ​Ausnahmezustand

​ , the expert has to work hard to remain an expert. It is expected of them to make a contribution to the problem and inform others. The need to maintain the status of expert and inform others can lead to speculation.

For the following it is not important if Theveßen and Becker really are experts on terrorism. Its important, that on the 22 July 2011 they were presented in the ​role​ of the expert. Brigitte Huber writes:

Die Rolle des Experten ist dadurch gekennzeichnet, dass bestimmte Erwartungen an die Person in dieser Rolle gerichtet sind. Grundsätzlich wird von einer Person in der Rolle des Experten erwartet, dass sie auf Basis ihres Wissens einen Beitrag zur Diagnose und/oder Lösung eines Problems beiträgt. In der Medienberichterstattung kann so ein Beitrag sehr unterschiedlich ausfallen und von der Erklärung komplexer Zusammenhänge über die Einschätzung der Folgen nach einer Katastrophe bis hin zu Tipps bei Alltagsproblemen im Rahmen des Ratgeberjournalismus reichen. 2

Translation: The role of the expert is characterized by certain expectations of the person in this role. Basically, a person in the role of an expert is expected to contribute to the diagnosis and/or solution of a problem on the basis of his or her knowledge. In media reporting, a contribution can be very varied and range from explaining complex contexts and assessing the consequences of a disaster to tips for everyday problems in the context of guidebook journalism.

The expection described by Huber is a contributing factor to the speculations that both Theveßen and Becker presented on TV.

Theveßen appeared in the ​heute-journal

​ in ZDF at 22:00 on the 22​ ​July and Becker around 21:45 during the ​tagesthemen

​ in ARD​

​ on the same day.

Theveßen is a wellknown journalist, author and filmdirector, has won several awards for his journalistic work and works for one of the biggest and most well-known newsstations in Germany. He was reporting during the attacks in New York in 2001 and he later made the diffuse subject of terror his expertise. He published books with titles like ​Terroralarm. Deutschland und die islamistische Bedrohung ,

​ or​ Nine-Eleven. Der Tag, der die Welt 3 veränderte

​ and directed a documentation with the title ​Die geheimen Staaten von 4 Amerika .

​ Now he is Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Head of News at ZDF. 5

Unfortunately the recording of the show „heute journal“ from 22 July 2011 is no longer available online. But media journalist and critic Stefan Niggemeier transcribed parts of the programme and published them on his blog as soon as 25 July 2011. You can read them here. The heute-journal is a daily news magazine that covers individual topics in detail. It runs daily on the public TV Station ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen). On friday, 22 July 2011 it was presented by anchorwoman Maybritt Illner and focused on the attack in Norway. Elmar Theveßen was in the studio with her, not, as in other formats, in a video or telephone interview.

English translation of parts of the dialog:

Illner:​ And now Elmar Theveßen, the ZDF terrorism expert, is in our studio. Elmar, the police have just confirmed that these two crimes are related. Does that make the search for the perpetrator or the perpetrators easier?


Theveßen​: (...) In this respect[it] is completely possible that a single perpetrator committed both acts. That doesn't mean he didn't have helpers and supporters. The police also said that this man is believed to be Norwegian, including a man of Nordic appearance, and that naturally fuels suspicions that he may be a local, local group. This has also been said by the police, but without saying in detail whether it could also be Islamist circles within the country or politically oriented groups - internationally organised terrorism seems increasingly unlikely.

Illner:​ And yet there is a letter of confession.

Theveßen: ​Yes. There's a letter of confession. This is a group that has spoken out on the relevant forums on the Internet, an Islamist group whose name was previously unknown. And they are committed to these attacks. She claims that they have to do with the Norwegian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and also with insults against the Prophet. This means that at least the impression has been given that there is an Islamic background. This is still possible. The police are not disclosing any further details about the perpetrator at present, and so the investigation must be awaited.


Illner: ​In both cases it seems to be a targeted attack on the Norwegian government, so one has to assume political reasons?


Theveßen:​ According to the current state of affairs, the police believe that there are more political reasons for this. This could of course be Islamism, the deployment in Afghanistan, for example, the massive participation of Norway in the air attacks in Libya, for example, within the framework of NATO operations, all this has caused a great deal of hatred and anger in Islamic circles. One of the leading Islamist preachers of hatred in Norway itself was indicted two weeks ago and issued wild threats against the government. But there are obviously other areas in society which, because of a policy in the world, also feels massive anger and anger about the policy of this government, even there from this environment. They don't want to qualify it more precisely, right-wing extremism perhaps, the police are very cautious, but such attacks would also be conceivable from this environment.


Illner:​ The last major wave of terrorism occurred in Sweden last year. Now Norway. Why is this concentrated on Scandinavia, at least one would like to have the impression?


Theveßen:​ Well, at the moment the European police authority says it is indeed concentrating on Scandinavia. We had an attempted attack in Stockholm, we had arrests in Norway. We also had an arrest in Copenhagen. Islamists especially in these countries are very strong, finding fertile ground to recruit young people. But, and here lies the big question mark, it is not clear whether it was Islamic circles that are behind these terrible attacks today.

In a later following examination, we will analyze this dialoge.


to be continued...

by: Insa Peters

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