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Media Coverage of Terrorism


A lot of research in the past has been dedicated to the influence of media in the society. The preceding researches have laid emphasis on general coverage of news and their influence on the political scene. Less attention has been paid to specific contents of news and their influence. This paper adds to an existing wide range of researches but with only one uniqueness; it has taken research to another level by specializing on media’s coverage of terrorism and the subsequent impact on peoples’ political views. The paper endeavors to establish if the way media reports news on terrorism affects peoples’ political views. It uses data collected after the September 11 bombings, which shows that the media’s coverage of the terrorist attacks changed the peoples’ political views in the days that followed the attacks up to date. This research opens a new perspective on research work in the days ahead and calls for researchers to narrow their study to specific areas in this field.

Key words: media (press), ideology, terrorism, political view, mass-mediated terrorism.


There is no dispute whether the media influence our lives or not. Almost all our perspectives in life and the decisions we make have an origin from our consumption of certain media content. The media is thus an important tool in the day-to-day life of society. When the issue of the impact media has on the society, the first thing that rings in the minds of many is the coverage of political campaigns, candidate interviews and the way media houses align themselves with particular political parties or candidates despite their claim of political neutrality. Such moves have profound impacts on the consuming public who take the media as their only source of information in matters of politics.

The media manages to influence the public in making political decisions through a number of ways. The straightforward one is their mode of coverage (Comstock, 13). The media control the perception of public support a political party or a candidate has. To achieve this, several strategies are deployed. According to Comstock, 14, “ explicit declarations of approval, the degree of public favor implied by imbalances in the number and stature of those quoted as advocating one or another position “ are key in determining the political stand of the public. He further adds that “the journalistic framing of occasions as representing success or failure…” also shape the political views of the public (Comstock 14).

The above role of the media is just a tip of the iceberg on how crucial this institution is to the society at large. Individuals who view the role of the media in the lenses of campaign and political affiliation should reconsider their stand and adopt a more holistic approach to the influence caused by the press. What such people need to realize is that ‘the media are an indissoluble part of the contexts, the messages and the relationships that create and give shape to politics and public life (Craig 1)’. The media should thus be viewed not as ‘an unnecessary and unwelcome intrusion’ to the public life (Craig 1).

As mentioned earlier, preceding researches have been concentrated on the influence the media news have in shaping peoples political views. Except for some few researchers, whose most of the sentiments expressed in this paper I am greatly indebted to specific contents of the news have attracted less research. Scholars who have shade more light in the topic I am endeavoring to research on include Wilkinson (1997), Cigner (2006), Schop & Hill(2009) among a host of others. Theses researches have shown significant interest in a segment of the news that receives much attention but its impact is taken for granted.

This segment of the news that has for years gone unnoticed except for the fear it unleashes is the part of news that deals with crisis and not only in the general sense of the word but news on terror precisely. The media in its quest to keep the viewer glued to the screen or whatever technology used, banks on immediacy and spontaneity. Terrorism attacks are well known for the quick response they elicit from media houses as well as the government. The media reports them with such commitment as efforts to go ton the scene and set up a live crew are made in an effort to keep the public versed with the latest developments. However small the crisis or attacks may be, the media has a big appetite for it and as such, it is compelled to report spontaneously and rapidly, a situation that may lead to reports that are damaging or inaccurate. This rush may have far-reaching impact in terms of rescue efforts or panic in the public scene.

The purpose of this research is not to criticize the media because of its unparalleled endeavor to inform the public in times of terror attacks but seeks to establish the influence such coverage has on the political views of the citizens. This is because such attacks are not happening in an anarchical society but in one that has a functional government with security to its subjects being one of its key agendas. As revealed later in the responses from the survey questions used in this paper, terrorist attacks not only inflict fear in the public but also shake or strengthen the peoples’ confidence on the government of the day. What brings in the two reactions is the how the media covers the counter terrorist attacks or its stand on the attacks.

The results show that the public’s trust in the government is wavered when in the wake of an attack; it realizes that the government is conceding or losing the grip in the counter terrorism war. The litmus test for this is the ay people will vote in any general elections that follow the attacks. On the other hand, if the government is firm in the counter terrorism war, the public’s trust and confidence in it is boosted and this has repercussions in the subsequent elections and especially if this happened in the first term in office.

The rest of this paper looks into several sources both primary and tertiary that were of great help to me in coming up with the above conclusion. Such contents form the bulk of the paper in establishing a strong foundation and background to this work. It also contains a literature review of related researches in this topic by a variety of scholars, which I must admit I also found quite relevant to warrant inclusion in my work. This research would have been incredible and impossible indeed, without any data collected from which analysis and discussion would lead to my conclusion as mentioned above. As such, the paper also has dedicated a considerable amount of focus on the method of data collection used here, which is survey questions, and of course the analysis of the data.


Terrorist attacks, as Nacos (2002) records are not a new phenomenon in the media fraternity. Since the 1970’s and 1980’s, terrorists have occasionally dominated the headlines in virtually all the news regardless of the media technology popular in the day.  A brief history of terrorist attacks reveals this. In 1988, a Pan Am flight 103 was drowned. Five years later, the World Trade Center was bombed. Two years after this inhumane and malicious act followed the bombing of the Oklahoma City. In the same year (1995), Tokyo woke up to a sarin gas release in one of its ever-busy subways. In 1998, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. The new millennium did not go unmarred all the same. A USS Cole was a victim of suicide attack in 2000. The list unwinds until the most vivid attacks, at least to the world, of the popularly known as 9-11 attacks.

The under lying difference between the pioneers of modern threats of terrorism way back in the 1970’s and 1980’s and those in the closure of the twentieth century and early twenty first century is the way the perpetrators have responded after their attacks. In the initial case, the terrorists would claim responsibility for their deeds explicitly and timely. This often led to reduced speculations in the public domain and made the path easier for counterterrorism action by the government. However, this strategy was short-lived since from the late 1988 incident of the drowning of the Pan Am flight 103, perpetrators of terrorist attacks do not claim responsibility in their identification or that of any group they are affiliated to (Nacos 13).

The difference in these two approaches adopted by terrorists lies with the driving force behind their attacks. Initial acts of terrorism were made to further a particular political agenda which the perpetrators wanted to pass to the government of the day and the public. They therefore, knowingly of the power media on these two groups of people, went ahead to claim responsibility of their acts ion the media explicitly. However, as expertise information and observation proved in this field revealed of recent, the new wave of terrorism is “typically committed by religious or pseudo religious fanatics” who “ supposedly [have] no media-centered goal (Nacos 13)”.

The main reason why the perpetrators embark on such deadly missions is to express their anger and revenge to the governments affected. According to Nacos, the terrorists are in a battle of a holy war ‘against an evil enemy’ and as their religion prescribes, they are out to make ‘the greatest possible harm’ to her and hence there is no need of public claims as their course is justified. On the other hand, those terrorists who play to the gallery do so in an effort, basically, to put across powerful messages to their targets (Nacos 14).

From the above motives of the terrorists, one distinctive characteristic of attacks stands out: even when the attackers or their affiliates do not express their motive, there exists a perpetual connection between terrorism and the public. This link is enhanced by the mass media. The resultant form of terrorism is what is popularly referred to as mass-mediated terrorism. This is the portrayal of terrorism in the press or in the entertainment scene. There are two categories of terrorism that the media depicts in its daily reporting of such actions when they occur.  One is the clearly understood one; that such violence is a crime. The other is understood from connotative grounds, as it is not explicit in its nature. This is the conveyance of terrorism as a political course. The latter forms the basis of the survey done in this research and the consequent results that support the research hypothesis, which states that the way media covers terrorism has effect on peoples’ political views.

The above disparities in this field lead to four types of violence as Nacos differentiates them. He states that there exists criminal violence, media violence, terrorism and media terrorism or mass-mediated terrorism as mentioned above. The difference in all these acts of violence is a key issue in this research. This is because as many people who commit brutal crimes do not term  their actions as a means to spread their motives no do they expect to gain publicity for their deeds in order to advance a political agenda (Nacos 10). He adds that contrary to this group, there is another category that is interested  in committing or threatening to commit an act of terrorism so as to get the attention of the media in the consequent coverage of their actions, grievances or more explicitly’ their political agenda.

The other category is that of the common criminal who chooses a person to be the victim of his or her target and has no hidden agenda because the attack on the victim is the end not the means to the end. In the case of the terrorist, the victim is used as an agent, an instrument to realize a pre-conceived effect to the target audience. In this case, the attack is a means to an end, not the end itself. “For the terrorist, the message matters not the victim (Schimid & Graff 15)” hence, it is a communicative act. As Nacos elaboratively puts it “unlike common criminals, terrorists have the  need to communicate in mind, when they plan and stage their violent incidents; [they] go out of their way in order to provide the mass media with cruel, shocking, and frightening images (Nacos 10)”.

A vivid ordeal fresh in the minds of many Americans before the September 11 attacks overshadowed it is the suicide attack on the U.S Navy destroyer, the USS Cole. This expensive vessel ironically was destroyed by a small boat occupied by two men. This suicide mission claimed the lives of seventeen members of the crew and injured thirty-nine others. Though the survivors managed to rescue the vessel from sinking, the damage had already been done and this opened a new chapter in books of anti- American terrorism war. Questions arose as to how such an armored ship could have been subdued by lone suicide bombers who accomplished their mission in the most primitive way of attacks.

The resultant coverage of the attack “… replayed pictures of the hole in the Cole’s hull, the bloody faces of the injured, the flag-draped caskets of the killed, and the teary-eyed relatives of the victims (Nacos 7)”. Given the magnitude of the event and the small causative agent, the whole world perceived the attack as a perfect Goliath and David metaphor. “A world’s most formidable super power military super power was incapacitated by members and/ or agents of a comparatively weak group unable to fight the mighty United States in open warfare (Nacos 7)”.

Following this attack, terrorism became a major topic in the US politics given that it occurred towards the fall of the elections in 2000. Explicit messages rent the air as to who would provide a lasting solution to the war on terrorism. At one time, George W. Bush, the then Republican nominee for White House, appeared side by side with Senator John McCain a context in which the later explicitly uttered that the war on anti-American terrorism was unlikely under the stewardship of Bush than under the governance of Bill Clinton.

Another incident of yet anther influence of coverage of terrorism attacks on the political arena is the contest for New York state representation between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rick Lazio (Nacos 8). These campaigns were characterized by accusations and counteraccusations of support from terrorism-affiliated groups. Specifically, the Republican Party alluded to a fifty thousand – dollar support their opponent Hillary Clinton had received from a fundraising event organized by American Muslim Alliance, the agitated Republican Party pressed charges on her to the voters for accepting campaign donations from a group affiliated to terrorism groups. Despite their indirectness, the accusations made on Hillary and her husband had a considerable effect on the voting Americans, an impact resulting from the exploitation of the media’s coverage of the terrorism events of the day to their advantage (Nacos 9).

Following the USS Cole attack, it is true that even in occasions when the attackers do not claim responsibility, the mass media, in its extensive coverage of such cases, puts across the perpetrators’ motives by cautioning the subjects not to put so much trust in their leaders’ superiority since they have failed to protect them in the wake of such attacks. It is on this background of the way coverage of news on terror attacks on the USS Cole vessel affected the 2001elections that this research, based on yet another terrorism on the USA soil, focuses on later attacks coverage and how it affected the peoples’ political view then given it was the fall of 2004 and campaigns were rife. However, before embarking on the data collected, a close look at what scholars have had to say in this topic is important.

Literature Review

Preceding researches have shown that there is a great influence of the media on votes cast during any type of election. They imply that the media influences peoples’ decisions through campaign news and advertisements. These shape the public’s assessment of its leaders and hence their opinions and consequently their voting patterns. This shows that the public bestows a lot of confidence to the press. Do the media reciprocate by providing credible news and coverage to its consumers? This relative question as to the credibility of the news covered is a factor determined by the media house in context, its ideology and its relation with the government of the day.

Kraus and Davis (1976) were convinced by research they contacted on the influence of media on political behavior that when candidates use the media in campaigns, their aim is to be elected and thus going by the amount of media coverage one elicits, they could determine losers and winners. They also concluded that the polls frequently done by media houses keep records of accomplishment of candidates through their regular assessment public opinion of who the public would vote for were the elections to be held at that point in time (Kraus & Davis 7).

The above findings concur with what other scholars found concerning the relationship among political leaders, the media, the public and terrorism news. To single out, a couple of them like Sarah Oates, Lynda Lee Kaid and Mike Berry posit  that” during a crisis-whether an inner riot, a hurricane poised to an America city, or a terrorist attack- there is an enormous appetite for news about the event. These researchers warn that such rush and desire to get first hand information more than often leads to a distortion of the data or news relied to the public a situation that is a potential threat to rescue efforts.

More specifically, researchers have shown a link between media and terrorists and the latter use this cord to further their preconceived gains. Wilkinson (1997) argues, “Terrorists need the media in order to spread fear as a key part of their objectives- while at the same time the media find terrorism newsworthy”. This results to a symbiotic relationship between the society’s voice of the voiceless and its biggest security threat of all times. The survey in this research is based on the September 11 terrorist attacks and apparently, Cigner (2006) adds his take by stipulating that “ terrorism is not just about death and destruction but also about fear, sowing suspicion, undermining confidence in public leadership, provoking people and governments into doing things that they might not otherwise do”. This is exactly what happened after the 2001 bombings, as the lives of the Americans were never the same again regardless of their political, social or economic status. More explicitly, the attacks led to the government strengthening its grip on the existing anti-American terrorism war and also awoke it from a deep slumber of complacency in her military superiority which was put to test and found wanting.

The government, being a custodian of the peoples’ security comes on the spotlight in the wake of a terrorist attack. It is thus, in an effort to absolve itself from blame, gets deeply involved in the terrorist attacks’ coverage to levels it chokes the media to advance its ideology. As such, the government forms a coalition with the media to control political discourses with the public on the receiving end. This new alliance of old foes, as Schopp & Hill (2009) found out leads to a creation of a specific ‘context of reception’ which is a confirmation why people have similar perceptions on the war on terror.

Lockyer (2003) adds that the media not only adopts the language of the terrorist for profit purposes but also the government terminology. Further research shows that the media over-emphasizes the terrorist violence at the expense of news on the prevention of such attacks. This is because of the nature of the media to value choking stories due to their newsworthy (Hoffman, Jengelley, Duncan, Buehler & Rees (2010). These scholars further argue that in the USA, for instance, the imbalance in terrorism aggregate to counterterrorism coverage is important, as it is a test of the public’s trust on the government. Such researches show that the number of messages about terrorism prevention that the media covers affects the level of trust in the government. A striking revelation from this research I undertook and from that of Hoffman et al (2010) is that the bigger the counterterrorism coverage by the media, the bigger the public trust in the government.

According to Seib & Janbek (2011), “in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the international news organizations that recognized that not everyone in the world sympathized with the super power victim quickly found out that politics would shape even the semantics of coverage”. For instance, Reuters cited the ‘attackers’ as ‘hijackers’ rather than ‘terrorists’ a term that elicited angry criticism. The media thus comes in handy in portraying the real picture of what happens instead of coining terms and labels that favor their ideology. Such moves result to a wrong public implication, which in turn results to distorted political views in the public domain. Like Seib & Janbek, (2011) put it “Words matter. Referring to someone as a terrorist or murderer rather than using resistant fighter or martyr can, over time, make a significant difference in how the public perceives particular persons and actions”.

As mentioned earlier in the introduction part of this paper, the terrorism phenomenon did not begin with the 9/11 attacks. Similar but less severe incidents had happened elsewhere but nevertheless with devastating results. Such include, as a recap, the car bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the World Trade Center car bomb in 1995, the suicide bombings of the USS Cole vessel in 2000 and a host of other terrorist attempts. Although these incidents received a considerable amount of airtime of the media houses, none of them was perceived as linked to a political revolution in the world as did the 9/11 attacks. What the affected governments failed to understand is that the latter attacks were an extrapolation of the initial attacks only this time with high consequences (Seib & Janbek 13).

As a repeat of Nacos (2002), Norris, Just & Kern (2003), echo this researcher by arguing that terrorists launch their attacks due to several reasons. One of this as the latter scholars found out is due to a religious fantasy, as was the case with the 9/11 attacks. Due to impact of the new media, the attacks were aired with such an immediacy liveliness, which greatly bolstered their effects. The events brought with them, apart from the anxiety created by the media, a non-existent ‘feeling of vulnerability to the American citizens’. Such events were, to many Americans and of course Bush, a justification of a consequential war on Afghanistan and Iraq though there were doubts of the linkage of the attacks to Saddam or Bin Laden.

As discussed in the above literatures, the media coverage of any act of terrorism has far-reaching repercussions to the consumer of such news. They lead to self-examination in the side of the government on where its security agents might have been complacent, where it has lost grip in the anti-terrorism war. In the public domain, media terrorism reports influence the peoples’ stand on the political leaders of the day as their security is put to a litmus test and even affects future elections of such leaders to office if the effects of the attacks find them still holding offices. Such was the case in 2004 elections as the USA was still fresh form the 9/11 attacks. The data used in this research to support the above preceding researches and of course my hypothesis is a list of seven survey questions which have multiple-choices to aid in collecting a wide range of related responses from the survey group as shown in the methodology below.


The aim of this research was to establish if the media coverage of terrorism attacks affects the political views of people. This being an explanatory research, I adopted a qualitative research method of collecting data. Such a method was appropriate as it seeks to establish a variation in the situation, phenomenon or problem without quantifying it (Kumar, 19). Since this type of researches entails such researches as those seeking for an account of peoples’ opinion about an issue, my interview questions came in handy during the entire period of collecting data to support my hypothesis. The following is the list of questions as I used to guide me during the interviews in collecting data.


1. Do you think that the terroristic attack of 2001 influenced election in 2004?

(a). Yes

(b). No

2. What do you feel was the most important issue facing the USA during the 2004 election?

(a). War in Iraq

(b). Economy

(c). Immigration

(d). Global warming

3. Frequently media coverage that people are getting could create false fears and false expectations.

(a). Strongly disagree

(b). Disagree

(c). Don’t know

(d). Strongly agree

4. If Barrack Obama were running for president in 2004, would he win?

(a). Agree

(b). Disagree

(c). Not sure

5. The bigger the counterterrorism coverage, the bigger the public trust in the government

(a). Strongly agree

(b). Disagree

(c). Don’t know

(d). Strongly disagree

6. Which of the following categories best describes your age?

(a). 18-25

(b). 25-35

(c). 35-45

(d). 45-60

7. Media coverage plays a great deal for the politicians to push for their political campaign

(a). Agree

(b). Disagree

(c). Not sure


The questions were posed to a group of twenty people who voted in the 2004 elections and who witnessed the 9/11 attacks. This sample cut all age groups from the voting age, came from different geographical regions were of different political affiliations and represented gender on a 50-50 basis. The interviewees were to answer the questions as restricted in the guideline questions to help in analysis of the data after its collection. All the answers were to be in the context of my research question that I made it known to the group members from the onset. The responses from the group were converted into percentages and the results are contained in the analysis that follows.


As I have mentioned above, the sample constituted of members form different political, socioeconomic, demographic and geographical background. Out of the twenty members, ten of them were females and the rest were males. Four of them were aged between 18-25 years, another category of four members were of age 25-35, a similar number lay in the age bracket of 35 45 while the rest were from 45-60. Half of the group included Republican Party supporters while the other half was Democrats. They also ranged from students in universities and colleges to retired civil servants.

Out of the whole sample interviewed, 12 people (60%) admitted that the 9/11 influenced the election of 2004. On the hand, 8 people (40%) disagreed with this hypothesis. Those who agreed supported their stand by arguing that, the attacks were a big shame to the US government and showed its deteriorating foreign ties and policy and hence this affected the voters’ decision in the election process. Some admittedly said they did not vote because they had no confidence in the government to provide security to them any way. The other portion labeled the attacks as inconsequential in their decisions since they were an unseen danger that could befall any government no matter how prepared it was.

On the question about which was the most important issue, disparities once again cropped up with those who earlier had agreed to the terrorist attacks having affected the 2001 elections going for the obvious issue of the war on Iraq. The reason to this was the same as those in the first question. 60% agreed that the war in Iraq was a pertinent issue facing the USA, 10% cited economy issues as being key, and 20% went for the immigration option while the rest settled for global warming. Although consent was centered on the Iraqian issue, the results were influenced by the occupational status of the sample members with the working category citing economic crisis as a major concern.

The third question sought the members’ opinion on the frequent media coverage that people were getting and whether such incidents would predispose them to false fears or false expectations. In response, 40% strongly agreed, 20% did not know while the rest .Those who consented by whatever degree noted that the media often distorts the news it covers and especially those on terrorism due to their spontaneity and immediacy hence leading to false implications. Members against this notion cite the issue of fear and false implication is a matter of implication and hence varies from an individual to another depending on how they have interpreted the news. The part of the sample that did not know defended their stand on the grounds that the media is prone to manipulation by other institutions hence if there is any unintended implication of its news; it is because of such external forces but not in the mere coverage of the news.

Another question that elicited interesting results was whether Obama would win if he were running for the 2004 presidency. Despite the political differences this group had, a greater unprecedented consensus was witnessed in the responses to this question. 70% agreed that Obama would win the race, 10% disagreed while 10% was not sure. Based on the hypothesis of the paper as a control guide, those who agreed cited Obama’s policy on terrorism, a phenomenon that was at stake in elections of 2004. Compared to Bush who adopted confrontational approach to the fight against terrorism, Obama’s diplomatic strategy would have curbed further retaliatory attacks. Those disagreeing referred to the fight against terrorism not a peaceful talk’s mission and that is why Obama’s policy would not have worked. The portion not sure confirmed that Obama’s political ambitions were still not rife then hence they could not rule out his win.

Question 5 sought to establish if there is any link between counterterrorism coverage by the media and the public trust in the government. Are the two directly proportional? The interview found out that 60% of the members agreed that there is direct link, 20% denied such a connection exists and 10% did not know. The rest strongly opposed such a hypothesis. Those strongly agreeing with the idea responded that if the media increased coverage of counterterrorism instead of terrorism attacks and superiority, this created confidence in the public through a sense of security and this bolstered its trust in the government. To those opposed to this connection, counterterrorism war and the provision of security to the citizens should not be viewed as favors from the government but the people’s rights. Those who did know did not acknowledge the existence of any link between the media, terrorism and government.

The last question was on whether the media contributes significantly the enhancement of political campaigns. In this case, all the members consented to this hypothesis a response that showed that the media was greatly engrossed in the political arena and such prone to manipulation by politicians to advance their ideologies. The above results concur and those done by earlier scholars like Nacos and Craig. One thing that runs through out all this works is that the media is not a separate institution as most people think but it rather exists in a symbiotic environment of give and take.

This relationship is even enriched when a third party, terrorists enter the scene. As it has been proved in the above responses, the way the media will cover media news on terrorism affects the governments response, which in turn affects the trust the public has on it. It is hoped this research will shade more light to this field that nevertheless has received some attention but not much as it deserves. In addition, the completion of this research was not without a few challenges, which are worthy noting. First are the political moods of the people, which are so easily affected by small matters like personal differences. Second is the type of data collected this being a qualitative research.  I would thus recommend future researchers to embark on more resourceful ways of collecting data instead of relying on peoples’ inner thoughts that may be biased. This would open avenues for considering a relatively quantitative approach to research in this field.

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