By Brigitte L. Nacos
According to a widely accepted definition, terrorism is political violence that deliberately targets civilians. But because one, perhaps the most important goal of terrorists is the intimidation of societies they target, terrorism is also understood as the threat of political violence against civilians. While researchers have studied the effects of terrorist incidents on affected populations, they have not dealt with the impact of terrorist threats. The same is true for the news about govermental terror alerts, warnings, and assessments. My colleagues Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and I closed this gap by examining the post-9/11 television coverage of both threats from Al Qaeda leaders and terror alerts and assessments by the Bush administration. Reporter Matthew Stannard discusses some of our findings in an article in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
These are our major findings:
Television--and most likely the rest of the news media--covered threats communicated by bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders as well as terror alerts, warnings, and assessments by the Bush administration prominently and extensively. In sharp contrast, when Washington lowered the official terror alert levels, such decisions received far less coverage or were not reported at all. In other words, disconcerting communications were over-covered, calming announcements under-covered by the media.
The communications by bin Laden and his associates were magnified by domestic media sources--including President Bush and other administration officials--who analyzed and interpreted in great length every new video- or audio-tape released by the Al Qaeda leadership. This was certainly helpful to bin Laden and his crew who have global aspirations and want to be political players on a global scale. See on this Dan Froomkin's column "On Quoting bin Laden" in today's Washington Post.
Threat messages by bin Laden/Al Qaeda as well as terror alerts, warnings, and assessments by the administration affected the threat perceptions of the American public. Especially statements by President Bush and the media coverage thereof heightened public concerns of further terrorism in the homeland. But bin Laden's mass-mediated messages, too, affected Americans' worries--especially their fears that they themselves or their families could become victims of terrorism.
Finally, threat assessments by members of the administation and especially by George W. Bush increased the President's public approval concerning his handling of terrorism.
In sum, then, not only terrorist strikes but also threats by terrorists and the alerts and warnings by governments affect a society that has already experienced major terrorist strikes.