Communication Currents

Does Watching the News Change our Attitudes about Political Policy: A Terrorism Case Study

October 1, 2012
Mass Communication

In 1985 U.K. Prime Minister Thatcher famously asserted that media reports of terrorist attacks served as "the oxygen of terrorism,”arguing that the media provide a boost to terrorists by publicizing both their message of fear and their political demands. However, much scholarly research suggests that news coverage of terrorism “errs” on the side of governments, thus helping to gain support for political leaders and security policies.    

Our research explored how newsframes of a terrorist attack impact the viewing audience (i.e. the way an event or issue is portrayed or organized by newsmakers via journalistic norms of highlighting certain aspects and downplaying others). On July 7, 2005 a series of coordinated blasts hit London’s subways and buses during the morning rush hour. In addition to the shock and loss of lives, media coverage of these explosions may have had a significant impact on public perceptions not only on the immediacy of the threat of terrorism but also its source.  

The U.S. and U.K. press coverage of the London terror attacks consisted of two competing viewpoints. The British press consistently focused on the “domestic” or “homegrown” theme and suggested that the incidents were the work of individuals acting within Britain and were isolated, random, and domestic in nature. This frame corresponded with Prime Minister Blair’s statements and the British administrative response, which included assigning primary responsibility for counterterrorism to the Home Office. In contrast, the U.S. press continually focused on the “international” connections of the incidents, relating them to the international “war on terror” and Al Qaeda. This framing corresponded with President Bush’s statements after the attacks and with the fact that the Department of Defense dominated the US response for the “War on Terror.”

Our interest is better understanding the impact of such reporting on actual viewers’ attitudes. We examined the effects of these two media depictions on individuals’ understanding and reactions to the events. We also investigated how the media coverage influenced perceptions of fear, attitudes towards Muslims, and the willingness of citizens to curtail their own civil liberties as part of counterterrorism policies. Individuals were exposed to videos drawn from actual newscasts of the 7/7 incident and response in one of two conditions. In both of the conditions the viewer saw the first night’s ninety-second introduction of the basic who, what, where, when and how of the attack. The first condition framed the attack, as did the U.K. press and administration, as domestic, homegrown terror, and the second, as did the U.S. press and administration, as an international threat connected to al-Qaeda. Those who viewed the videos then answered questions related to their attitudes and beliefs.

Our results suggest that media framing of terrorism influences not only how the public perceives and reacts to an event, but also how the public processes attitudes in the formation of judgments. When terrorist events are framed as domestic or homegrown, individuals are more likely to support civil liberties restrictions. While this may not be surprising, since we would expect increased security concerns following exposure to messages that threaten perceptions of domestic security, we did not find increased concern for international security measures when the measures were framed as international. This raises the question of why the domestic framing was more influential to this national sample of the American public, even though the terrorism in question took place across the Atlantic. The domestic terror threat appears to raise different anxieties and greater fear levels associated with the possibility of terrorists within. It is possible that the domestic homegrown frame reignited fears of such an event occurring in the United States, which might explain the strong reaction.

The impact of the domestic threat frame becomes clearer when we look at the results when controlling for party identification (ID). When the effects of party ID are measured on those exposed to the international frame, the expected differences between Republicans and Democrats with regard to all civil liberties restrictions, international intervention, and attitudes toward Muslims are consistent with previous public polling on these issues. However, when we examine the effects of party ID on those exposed to the domestic frame, all ideological differences disappear with regard to civil liberties restrictions. The domestic frame creates effects that tend to suppress party identification. That is, in this study, high levels of fear and a sense of high threat acted to suppress partisanship in the formation of judgments about counterterrorism policies.

In contrast, after viewing the domestic frame, party ID still appears related to attitudes towards Muslims.  The only variable found to have the power to suppress ideological differences with respect to attitudes toward Muslims is high fear of a future attack. That is, those expressing higher fear are more likely than those with lower fear levels to support civil liberties restrictions and international intervention and to have less favorable attitudes towards Muslims. The suppression of differences between Democrats and Republications when fear is high raises an interesting issue regarding which attitudes are most easily manipulated. The data suggest that it is more difficult to increase negative, prejudicial attitudes toward Muslims than it is to increase support for restrictions on Muslims’ civil liberties. This would indicate that although authorities may be able to garner support in times of fear towards more restrictive policies on out-groups, prevalent expectations for behavior (or social norms) hold people back from directly expressing negative attitudes toward the same out-group.

These findings highlight some of the consequences of long-standing journalistic practices, which privilege the government’s interpretation of events. By portraying events as international and connected to Al Qaeda, President Bush remained consistent with his previous messages about supporting the war on terror. Importantly, the results suggest that Mr. Bush’s framing of 7/7 likely would not have generated increased support for the administration’s counterterrorism policy, which, in addition to the international war on terror, included the curtailment of civil liberties. We had anticipated that the international frame, given the events had occurred in the U.K., would have had far more impact on our subjects than it did.

In contrast, Prime Minister Blair’s framing of the events as homegrown deflected discussion of the possible link between the attacks and British participation in the War in Iraq and suggested that higher levels of concern with Muslim minorities as well as greater support for restricting British Muslim civil liberties were warranted. This government and media framing led to a substantial program of monitoring and surveillance of the U.K.’s Muslim Community and a fairly aggressive counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST). The strategy includes the PREVENT policy which aggressively targeted the Muslim Community and has been the subject of much scholarly as well as a critical government review (completed in January 2011).   

Given the unfortunate likelihood that democratic societies will continue to be the victims of future terrorist events, these results indicate that it is crucial that we continue to seek greater understanding of the implications of the interaction between government positioning and media coverage of events and the subsequent policy choices democratic societies make in their responses to terrorism. In democratic societies, the news media are often expected to contribute to the public in three ways: by providing a forum for political debate to facilitate informed and diverse public opinion, and to serve as a government “watchdog”. The media are charged with these responsibilities as a result of the huge amount of potential influence they hold over the public, as coverage of issues and events shape both the public’s actual opinions and the perception of the public mood. Thus, the media have the responsibility to not only provide “the news,” but also to ensure that along with that news they provide the public with the context and background to enable the public to evaluate the information contained within it. 

About the author (s)

Mary Brinson

University of San Diego

Faculty member

Michael Stohl

University of California, Santa Barbara