Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion

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Author: Montague Kern
Date: Fall 2012
From: Political Science Quarterly(Vol. 127, Issue 3)
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,092 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1500L

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Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion by Brigitte L. Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon, and Robert Y. Shapiro. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2011. 264 pp. Paper, $24.00.

Brigitte L. Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon, and Robert Y. Shapiro present a new way to link content analysis of terrorism-related news stories to how the U.S. public thinks about terrorism, focusing on television news stories and statements about terrorism developed by major political actors in the United States and abroad.

Selling Fear builds on previous studies that have proven the agenda-setting, framing, and priming effects of news, as well as the relationships between the news and the public's policy preferences. The authors are modest in their claims in regard to drawing the strongest possible inferences about cause-and-effect relationships, because they often had, as they point out, only intermittent public opinion data. They deal with this problem, however, by fully exploiting the data relating not just to news and public opinion, but to real-life events and public policy statements by the President and other political actors. They use all statistical tools available to them, and point to strong correlations in a number of significant cases.

Their achievement is substantial in the press-politics-public policy field. This co-authored book also adds significantly to the media and terrorism literature. The book has brought together an illuminating content analysis of a number of topics, along with a sophisticated fresh look at short- and long-term public opinion data that yields new insights. The latter chapters use content analysis and public opinion data, as well as other types of data, to delineate the change that occurred after the 2004 election.

These latter chapters follow up by offering helpful content analysis and public opinion data probing partisanship, race, and gender in regard to terrorism issues, including a linkage between news coverage of Katrina and growing anti-war on terrorism sentiment on the part of African Americans. They make it clear that new actors are covered by television news after the 2004 election, changing the generally indexical coverage that characterized news stories during the earlier time frame. These later chapters are not, however, as convincing in regard to the press-polities-public policy linkages, in part, because they devote little attention to newspaper coverage as a part of the mix (other than some coverage on the part of The New York Times).

It is true that television was cutting down on global news coverage and was not on the cutting edge of the press-policy triad. But a newspaper such as The Washington Post, whatever its editorial position, was read and respected by policy elites, as well as the press more broadly. Even before the 2004 election, it, along with The New York Times, had begun to lead the pack, covering Iraq on the ground and contributing to the public impression on the part of many policymakers and citizens that the war had gotten bogged down. Recently, the framing effects approach has been adding to our understanding of the ways in which other news outlets may or may not impact policy and public opinion in complex political contexts. Much additional work, however, is required of those who make this effort.

However, it is hard to disagree with the major conclusions of this book. First, corporate, audience-driven television, and indeed many similarly oriented newspapers, failed to inform the public early, when it really mattered, in regard to the nature of the terrorism phenomenon and about how it could best be countered by the United States and its allies, thereby violating the essence of the democratic press-politics-policy agreement. Second, the upshot for the press was one of contributing strongly to replacing the burden of the Cold War from a public point of view with the burden of the war on terrorism.

Two chapters in Selling Fear cover the 1991 to 1994 period based on strong content analysis and public opinion data. Both deal, of course, with the types of "crisis" periods that have long been understood to be indexical. They involve full-bore crises (the Cuban missile crisis, the Afghan invasion crisis) in which an ideological enemy (the Soviet Union) is universally perceived to have gone on the attack, leading to a rally-'round-the-flag effect that greatly expands support for a president, increasing his policy options. The chapters are chapter 2, Selling Fear, and chapter 3, Civil Liberties vs. National Security. Chapter 3 makes it clear that the administration sold the public on the idea that it should not be overly concerned that the government authorized serious civil rights violations during the investigation of suspected terrorists and denied suspects the constitutional guarantee to ask federal courts to hear their habeas corpus petitions. The press was a handmaiden in this effort.

Chapter 2 probes the role of the President, other administration officials, and his supporters, in nourishing a climate of fear that made this possible, and contributed to high presidential approval ratings that endured through much of his first term, ultimately leading to his reelection in 2004. Here, the authors evaluate the content analysis of news coverage, including source usage, and probe the nature of news placement and presidential approval ratings, as well as specific speeches and policy statements developed separately from the news coverage. Thus, they can test effects theories in regard not just to the impact of news, but specific speeches and interviews by the President and all who supported his policies, from Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his heirs in the Department of Defense, to Secretary John Ashcroft in the Justice Department. Threat events, including terrorism incidents, were used to assist in the analysis. Issue content in news was divided into three separate categories: concern about more major terrorist attacks, likelihood of attack in the next few months, and worry about becoming a victim of terrorism.

From this they conclude that the President's overall approval rating, his handling of terrorism threats, and the public's perception of the threat as a major problem were highly correlated with news coverage. They conclude that terrorism remained a significant concern for the public, stimulated by administration actors and their supporters in pursuit of political objectives, even as threats of terrorism were receding. Finally, activated by the assist of an Osama bin Laden statement favoring John Kerry (both Kerry and Bush have been quoted as being in agreement on this) and strong renewed television coverage of terrorism, George W. Bush received an assist with the 2004 election.

This book makes a solid contribution to the press-politics-policy literature concerning our understanding of the role that terrorism has played in our public life.


Rutgers University

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A303641346