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 generally negative effect they have had so far on 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 his 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 also compares terrorism conducted by fanatical Muslims and that which is inflicted by fanatical ‘natives’ – eg, in the study, Dutch terrorists. Because of the news framing the perceived threat from ‘foreigners’ is significantly greater than those from ‘natives’.
The study also clearly confirms that linking terms such as terrorism, violence and Muslims, has a very significant effect on all Muslims, despite the fact that only a very small minority of this group are 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 for coping with danger. So when the media frame the news around terrorism and link that to those signals all humans will react to it.
We are all subject to the ‘us and them’ condition; the report talks about so-called in-groups and out-groups.
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 also important elements that are playing a role in the cognitive processes of those who are exposed to the media reports, and how they are framed around terrorism.
In general the popular media frame 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 very 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, creating a more open-minded society, are equally building bridges between different people, different cultures and different religions.
My conclusion from Alexander Budde’s study is that use of the abovementioned strategies by governments, communities and the media will 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.