How does news media reporting shape terrorism and public perception?

The following Q&A on terrorism is part of Learning Life’s Big Questions Series.  The series offers experts’ short answers to big questions, with more information about the experts and their research for those curious to learn more.  We inaugurated the series on the 12th anniversary of 9/11 (2013) with three big questions about terrorism and provocative answers from three noted terrorism researchers.  This page offers their answers to our third question: how does news media reporting shape terrorism and public perception of terrorism? 

Read expert answers to Question 1 (what are the underlying causes of terrorism?) and Question 2 (how big a threat is terrorism?).


Dr. Gary LaFree:

Terrorism and the media go hand in hand.  Indeed, modern terrorism would not exist without mass media.  It would have been difficult to terrorize the whole world back in 1850 because terrorists then would have had a harder time widely publicizing their act, but now you can terrorize the world instantaneously through mass media.  Further, most of what researchers know about terrorism comes from careful analysis of media reports.  Some people have referred to terrorism as theater.  One of the main goals of terrorist organizations is to get media attention, and they are very concerned about controlling their image in the media.  It’s one of the dark sides of the communications revolution.


Dr. Dennis Mileti: 

Let’s focus on the public’s perception of risk because that’s critical.  First, there is no objective reality for human beings.  What people think or perceive as real is reality for them.  Second, what people think or perceive often has little to do with objective risk.  This is fundamental to how human beings are wired.  It applies to all risk, not just terrorism.  Third, the media presents people with information, and that information shapes public perception of risk.  Since most of what people know about terrorism is through the media, media is the major player in shaping public perception of terrorism.

The objective of a terrorist is to become an applied social psychologist, to influence the media so as to increase the public’s perception of terrorism risk and disrupt civil society as a result.  Thus, when air travel fell off after 9/11, the terrorists were successful in shaping public perception of risk.  The impact on the public’s perception of risk is relatively short-lived though.  It takes approximately two years after a terrorist event before the population goes back to the risk perception levels they had prior to the event.  The media, however, can keep that risk perception elevated, whether or not there is a real risk.


For more information on terrorism research, visit the University of Maryland’s National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).


Gary LaFree is Director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.  START is currently engaged in approximately 40 research projects dealing mostly with the human causes and consequences of terrorism.  Dr. LaFree is a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), and a member of the National Academy of Science’s Crime, Law and Justice Committee.  He has served as President of the ASC and of the ASC’s Division on International Criminology.  Dr. LaFree has published more than 70 articles and three books.  Much of Dr. LaFree’s current research is on trends in criminal and political violence.

Dennis Mileti is Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he served as Director of the Natural Hazards Center and as Chair of the Department of Sociology.  He is author of over 100 publications, most on the societal aspects of hazards and disasters. His book, Disasters by Design, summarized the U.S. effort to assess knowledge and national policy for hazards and disasters.  He played a major role in the research that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) performed for the U.S. Congress on evacuation of World Trade Center Towers 1 & 2 on 9/11.  Click here for more on Dr. Mileti’s research.