Public Perception of Terrorism

How Does Mass Media Coverage Influence People's Risk Estimates of a Terrorism Attack?

Term Paper, 2011
21 Pages, Grade: A



The bombing of various US-institutions in Germany attempted by a small group of Islamistic terrorists calling themselves the Islamic Dschihad in September 2007 was widely reported in all German mass media channels. This paper is an effort to analyze how reports emotionally framed by fear-appeals and appeals to uncertainty lead to heuristic and shallow information processing on the part of the readers, who consequently overestimate the likelihood of a terrorist attack and therefore become more likely to approve of action recommendations such as precautionary policy changes. By applying the Social Amplification/Attenuation of Representations Framework (Kasperson, 1988, 1992) on the reports of three of the largest German newspapers, Die Zeit, Die Welt and Spiegel, it is illustrated how the secondary consequences of a risk event serve as amplifiers of the original risk and activate representations of similar events within readers.


„We cannot not communicate.“. This statement by Paul Watzlawick is known in the scientific community as the metacommunicative axiom (Watzlawick, 2011, pp. 58). It entails that, without exception, all human behavior is a form of communication. As one cannot conceive of a possibility to „not behave“, there seems to be no contrary to behavior and consequently, nothing to antagonize communication. Human beings send messages to one another all the time. Most importantly, they not only communicate verbally but non-verbally as well, be it by body language, facial expression or via images and symbols.

The latter plays a crucial role when it comes to conveying a message through a visual medium, for example newspapers and television. Both are powerful communication tools that enable their users to send messages and convey information to hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously. Acting on the assumption that recipients of a media message, for example a newspaper article, process not only its explicit verbal content but also the implicit message contained within its pictures and figures of speech, I theorize that people can be influenced by the mass media on an affective level (Shoshani & Slone, 2008). Emotional appeals are commonly used by all media. Adding a picture of a catastrophic event as a mere means of illustration can already convey information that appeals to affect, for example fear, disgust or anger. Considering that emotion, cognition and behavior are tightly interwoven and influence one another, it is plausible to suppose that by eliciting any kind of affect in another person one can impact their emotions, thoughts and finally their actions as well.

In the present paper, I am going to adress this interdependency from the perspective of risk psychology, using a terrorism attack as an example for a risk. If affect influences people‘s estimates of how likely a risk is (Breakwell, 2007) and if mass media possess the power to influence people‘s emotions, there should be evidence that in times of heightened media coverage of a risk, people hold different beliefs about its probability. More precisely, if an emotional appeal transported in a medial message elicits fear in its recipients and if that feeling of being threatened alters how people think about the risk being portrayed, they should also change their attitude towards measures that presumably protect them from that risk. So, people will overestimate the likelihood of a terroristic attack when in a fearful affective state and are therefore more heavily inclined to approve political measures designed to protect them from terrorism (Orehek, E., Fishman, S., Dechesne, M., Doosje, B., Kruglanski, A.W., Cole, A.P.,..., Jackson, T., 2010) .

It is important to analyze these processes because they raise the question of how vulnerable people are to being manipulated into consenting to policies that naturally constrain personal freedom in a democratic state. Looking back at what kind of policies have been changed or introduced following a real or perceived terrorism threat in the USA, Britain and Germany[1], protection in this context implies granting governmental acteurs a wider legal range to gather information about and thereby control their citizens or even to engage in armed conflict and bend international law in the name of protection from terrorism (Jackson, 2005, Bigo, Tsoukala, 2008).

What now follows is an analysis of how the mass media communicate a risk to their recipients, how they use frightening emotional appeals to convey the message, and how consequently, people overestimate the likelihood of the respective risk and develop a tendency to approve of security policies they would otherwise reject. This mechanism will be exemplified on the case of Germany‘s news coverage on and political reaction to the 2007 averted terrorist attacks of the Sauerland- Group. I will use the method proposed by the Social Amplification of Representations Framework (SARF) developed by Kasperson (1988, 1992) to analyze how mass media coverage of the attacks

influenced public perception of the terrorist threat and the political decisions that followed them. The SARF accounts for the phenomenon that public and expert assessment of a risk are often not congruent and that consequently, policies derived from risk appraisals sometimes are neither justified nor adequate.

Theoretical groundwork

The Social Amplification / Attenuation of Representations Framework The SARF developed by Kasperson (1988, 1992) is not a classical theory but rather a framework that can be used as a tool to analyze different levels of risk perception, risk assessment and risk effects. The underlying hypothesis is that the public and experts use different standards to evaluate what posits a risk and what does not. Technical risk assessment relies on the product of the probability of an event and the magnitude of its effects. Society and individuals on the other hand include other aspects as well, for example voluntariness, familiarity and potential harm. Values, norms, attitudes and culture shape people‘s perception of what a risk is. The framework proposes that as a consequence, risks that experts view to be only marginal can generate disproportionally strong reactions in society. Or the other way around, risks that professionals believe to be highly damaging are being ignored by the public, for instance smoking as a health risk factor (Das, deWit, Stroebe, 2003).

How are these amplification or attenuation tendencies propelled? Kasperson et al. (1988) propose two levels of amplification. First, the transfer of information about the risk itself through personal experience or direct / indirect communication about it. Second, the societal response to the risk, which can by itself amplify the risk even further and spawn new „responses to the responses“. Through this mechanism, „ripple effects“ occur, meaning the risk not only has consequences to those directly affected by it but also influences other parties, locations or points in time. See Fig. 1 for an overview of the model.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1.: Schematic depiction of the Social Amplification/Attenuation of Risk Framework by Kasperson, 2003[1]

Terrorism attacks fit well as examples of how these amplification processes work. Even though they are relatively unlikely to occur, their symbol value has increased to such an extent in public perception also of societies that have not been the target of any terroristic assaults as to warrant incisive political changes in society that threaten to undermine democracy. How can these ripple effects be explained? Firstly, however, as the model is heavily based on communication theory, it needs to be illuminated how communication about abstract concepts such as „risk“ works.

Social Constructivism, Social Representations Theory In order to understand how symbols and images unfold their communicative function in the mass media, it is first necessary to introduce a framework that accounts for how a symbol receives its meaning. According to the theory of Social Constructivism, there exists no objective social reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). Rather, it and all phenomena it contains are constantly being invented, elaborated and re- interpreted by the members of a society. „Risk“ viewed in this framework is not an objective fact. Without regard to its scientific definition as a likelihood ratio, it is an abstraction of a physical threat that is given meaning by the entities who communicate about it. These abstractions are called social representations or mental models (Moscovici, 1966, 1984, 1988, as cited in Breakwell, 2007). They are „defined as a widely shared set of beliefs, a systematic framework for explaining events and evaluating them“ (Breakwell, 2007, p. 254). A symbol then, for example the burning Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11th, is a further abstraction from whatever event was perceived as a risk. The picture becomes a most dense codification of a whole series of events (everything from the attacks themselves to changes in legislation and „war on terrorism“) and thereby, it becomes part of the social representation of „9/11“.


[1] „Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act“ 2001 „P.A.T.R.I.O.T.-Act“ 2001

„Gesetz zur Bekämpfung des internationalen Terrorismus“ 2002 Gesetzestexte/DE/T/Terrorismusbekaempfungsgesetz.html?nn=107146

[1] in Breakwell 2007, p. 226

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Public Perception of Terrorism
How Does Mass Media Coverage Influence People's Risk Estimates of a Terrorism Attack?
Norwegian University of Science and Technology  (Psychological Institute)
Risk Psychology, Environment and Safety
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Note A bedeutet laut NTNU: An excellent performance, clearly outstanding. The candidate demonstrates excellent judgement and a high degree of independent thinking.
risk perception, risk estimation, public perception, terrorism, mass media, Riskoeinschätzung, Risikowahrnehmung, Terrorismus, Massenmedien
Quote paper
Anna-Sophia Fritsch (Author), 2011, Public Perception of Terrorism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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