Public Fear of Terrorism and the News Media


This is based on a research investigation undertaken approximately 9 weeks after the terror attacks of September 2001. It focuses on the public’s fear of terrorism and its relationship to three issues of interest to communication researchers. First, we look at the relationship between feelings of fear about terrorism and public attitudes toward restrictions on civil liberties and the news media. Next, we explore the relationship between feelings of fear about terrorism and news media use. The third focus is an examination of whether self-reports estimating an affective state—fear of terrorism—result in a perceptual bias similar to that repeatedly found in the literature of the so-called third-person effect theory. The latter issue is dealt with in much more depth in Chapter 7, and specifically in the context of the online news user, but some preliminary observations derived from the data set collected for this investigation may lend some additional insight. The chapter concludes by presenting descriptive data about online news readers and their uses and perceptions of online news media coverage of the war on terrorism. In mid-November 2001, daily life for many Americans was at least moving on, if not exactly back to normal. The public continued to struggle with the psychological stresses of adjusting to a world that suddenly appeared to be a great deal more dangerous than the one encountered before September 11. During this time period, the news media gave fervid and exhaustive coverage to the war in Afghanistan, anthrax attacks, and anxiety. As one Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent told Newsweek, “Although anthrax is not contagious, fear of it was epidemic” (Begley & Isikoff, 2001, ). Fears that the country had suffered another terror attack were raised on November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587, bound from New York to Santo Domingo, crashed in a Queens neighborhood, killing 265 people. A nationwide survey of 1,000 adults by the Pew Research Center, conducted from October 31 to November 7, 2001, provides some general impressions of Americans’ attitudes toward the threat of terrorism during this time (Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2001). The Pew Center study found that 89% of Americans reported following news stories about terrorism in the United States either very closely (63%) or somewhat closely (26%). Twenty-four percent said they felt depressed because of their concerns about terrorist attacks or the war against terrorism, a sharp decline from the 71% reported in mid-September, immediately following the attack. Forty percent reported being either very worried (13%) or somewhat worried (27%) about themselves or someone in their family becoming a victim of a terrorist attack, with people living in major coastal cities more worried (50%) than Americans living elsewhere (38%). Finally, 47% of the respondents felt the news media were giving just the right amount of coverage to the spread of anthrax story, whereas 40% said the news media were giving it too much coverage. Seven percent felt the news media were not giving the story enough coverage (Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2001). It is against this backdrop that the data in this study, a representative U.S. telephone survey of 512 adult respondents conducted during the evenings from November 15 to 20, 2001, and the evening of November 27, 2001, were collected.


In times of great crisis, governments reflexively turn to measures of increased social control, hoping to diminish dangers and lessen fears. For example, in the ongoing campaign against terrorism, the government has established laws such as the U.S.A. Patriot Act, designed to facilitate law enforcement’s antiterrorism efforts. The Patriot Act and other government antiterrorism initiatives have sparked concern for the perceived erosion of civil liberties. Americans in principle support protecting individual freedoms from government abridgment, but the historical record is replete with examples of excesses, especially during unusual and intense “pathological periods,” when shifting public attitudes toward basic liberties threaten to undermine the normal impulse to restrain government power (Blasi, 1985). One such period occurred during World War II when 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, many of them American citizens, were forced into relocation camps. Civil liberties were also curtailed during the U.S. Civil War, as they were by the Sedition Act during World War I and “Red Scares” of the 1920s and the 1950s. Such ignominy does not occur often, but fear of terrorism could again foster public attitudes leading to a contraction in civil liberties. Altheide and Michalowski (1999) noted that, “The preva­lence of fear in public discourse can contribute to stances and reactive social policies that promote state control and surveillance. Fear is a key element of creating ‘the risk society,’ organized around communication oriented to policing, control, and prevention of risks”


For almost three decades, the relationship between fear and media exposure has been the subject of numerous social science research investigations, focusing mostly on whether exposure to violence on television is related to fear of crime. For example, some theorists argued that television viewing caused fear of crime and perceptions that the world was a scary place (Bryant, Carveth, & Brown, 1981; Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980). Hirsch (1980, 1981) argued that there was no consistent evidence of such a relationship in the Gerbner data, and Doob and MacDonald (1979) reported that the relationship between the amount of television viewed and fear of crime was insignificant after controlling for the actual amount of crime in respondents’ neighborhoods.

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