Mass Media and the Increased Perception of the Threat of Terrorism

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While it is intuitive to accept that the media plays a key role in the level of perceived fear in society in relation to terrorist attacks, it was with interest that I read the bachelor thesis of my Italian nephew, who is studying at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

It provides an interesting insight into the role of the media and the negative general effect this has had so far on people’s fear of terrorism, but the study also provides insights into how the media can be used in a more positive way to reduce the level of perceived threat.

The title of my nephew’s thesis is ‘The Impact of News Framing on the Perceived Threat of Terrorism in the Netherlands and the Role Indirect Contact May Play in Reducing It’. When reading the thesis, it quickly becomes clear that this applies to all western countries.

The study compares terrorism conducted by fanatical Muslims and that which is inflicted by fanatical “natives,” which in the study is Dutch terrorists. It is apparent that the news framing the perceived threat from “foreigners” is significantly greater than that from “natives.”

The study also clearly confirms that linking terms such as terrorism, violence and Muslims has a significant effect on all Muslims, despite the obvious fact that only a small minority of this group is comprised of terrorists or supporters of the principles of terrorism.

There are some very human behavioural reactions linked to the emotion of fear. It is our inborn response to coping with danger. So when the media frames the news around terrorism and links it to those signals, all humans will react to it.

We are all subject to the “us and them” condition. This report talks about so-called in-groups (us) and out-groups (them).

Fear needs to be tempered by the process of cognition and learning. Only when the fear signals are tested against a range of more rational inputs are we able to come up with a more balanced reaction. Gender, education, social background, age and wealth are all important elements that play a role in the cognitive processes of those who are exposed to media reports and how they are framed around terrorism.

In general, the popular media frames terrorism in such a way that it leads to increased perceptions of fear, but it can also assist in lowering that perception.

The study identifies a number of media strategies that can be used. They include:

  • Contact theory
  • Indirect intergroup contact
  • Additional intervention technologies

It is well-known that direct contact with people from the out-group rapidly lowers the level of threat perceived by those who are in direct contact with them. The media can use that social, human trait in an indirect way by providing reports depicting positive contacts between in- and out-groups.

Positive policies and activities around multiculturalism that create a more open-minded society build bridges between different people, cultures and religions.

My conclusion from Alexander Budde’s study is that use of the above-mentioned strategies by governments, communities and the media could lead to a much more balanced image of the perceived threat of terrorism and to a fairer and more considered understanding of the people who, through many of the negative media reports, are currently wrongly associated with terrorism.

Paul Budde

Global Seven News

Feel free to download the thesis here:

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