Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid: Trump, Terrorism, and the Media

February 22, 2017
Be Afraid – Be Very Afraid: Trump, Terrorism, and the Media
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

During a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, home to the headquarters of the United States’ Central Command and Special Operations Command, President Donald Trump claimed that incidents of terrorism are not adequately reported by news media outlets.  He also seemed to suggest that the news media were doing so intentionally, saying, “in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”  A short time later the White House released a list of seventy-eight terrorist incidents since September of 2014 that it claimed were under-reported or inadequately reported.  Oddly, the list of allegedly under-reported terror attacks included high-profile incidents such as the Paris nightclub attacks, the Nice truck attack, and the San Bernardino, California mass-shooting, all of which received extensive news exposure.

For most people the likelihood that they will be killed by terrorist violence remains exceedingly low; terrorism is highly unevenly distributed, being localized in a few places, while most of the world experiences very little.[1]  It is also easy to appreciate the fact that news outlets regularly report on terrorism, broadcasting detailed reports almost instantly after an incident of violence occurs.  So, the President’s claim that terrorism is not receiving the news coverage it deserves challenges what we think we know about terrorism and the media, and raises a few questions: 1.) what is the relationship between the media and terrorism? 2.) how should journalists frame incidents of terror; do different frames change how people perceive terrorist violence? 3.) why would the media seek to under-report terrorism?

“The oxygen of publicity…”

Terrorism can be understood as a form of political communication and terror groups rely on the mass media as conduits of their messages to target audiences.  To be most effective, terrorist violence must be telegraphed beyond the immediate locus of the act itself.  Fortunately, most people do not experience terrorist violence directly; for them, what they know of terrorism has been mediated through mass-communication institutions.  Terrorism researchers Mary Brinson and Michael Stohl describe the crucial connection between terrorism and media: “communication and media are as important to the terrorist and the government as the actual act of violence itself.  Therefore analysis of news coverage and its implications are crucial for counterterrorism efforts.”[2]

Terrorism is a different sort of criminal act.  An act of terrorist violence itself may not have intrinsic meaning beyond those immediately involved, but when violence is broadcast, it obtains greater political and social significance.  Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said in a speech to the American Bar Association that the news media provide terrorists with the publicity they require to be effective.  “The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed.”  She then called for moderation in the coverage of terrorism, “we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”  Her solution was to call for a voluntary code of conduct among those who cover terrorism, that they would not, “say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted.”  So, that during (and perhaps immediately following) an incident of terrorist violence, the news media ought to treat terrorism differently than they might some other dramatic criminal act.

Those who lead terrorist organizations recognize the value of well-placed stories in the media.  In 2005 al-Qaeda spiritual leader Ayman Zawahiri wrote a letter to the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.   His concern was that al-Qaeda’s image was being soiled among Muslims because Zarqawi broadcast videos of captives being beheaded and that he was killing too many Iraqi civilians.  Zawahiri wrote that while they were in a physical battle, “more than half of that battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”  The legacy of Zarqawi’s terror group, Daesh (ISIS/ISIL, the Islamic State) spends considerable effort in publicizing their activity in technically savvy media presentations, to include an English-language on-line magazine Dabiq.  Terrorist organizations use media to justify their actions, recruit supporters, taunt enemies, and reinforce positive images to critical audiences.  Like any other political organization, a terror group seeks to avoid negative media, and to propagate its own message with supportive imagery and text.

Media Framing and Framing Effects

            To frame something is to highlight a certain aspect of perceived reality in such a way that promotes a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, or proposed solution.  Framing promotes certain judgments over others by manipulating the relative saliency of certain aspects of reality, made possible by mediating reality.[3]  News framing is the way a story is presented by media outlets that can simplify, prioritize, and structure the narrative of an event.  Frames are interpretive structures used by journalists to put an event into context.  Episodic framing focuses on the immediate facts of a story; typified by the “who, what, when, where, why?” journalistic questions.  Thematic framing tends to focus on understanding a particular facet of a particular story in a deeper way.  Framing effects are changes in the perception of or opinion about a story that have resulted from different frames being applied.

News reporting of terrorism (and other criminal activity) is mostly episodic; when violence occurs, people tend to want to know the facts about the incident.  As the drama of the act fades, more thematic framing can occur.  Stanford Political Scientist Shanto Iyengar found that episodic framing affects public opinion by shifting attention toward individual perpetrators, their specific acts, and increases support for government security enhancements.  Episodic frames tend to focus on individual victims and perpetrators, which reinforces the idea that responsibility lay with individuals who need to be brought to justice.  On the other hand, thematic framing can shift public attention toward societal conditions in which terror groups grow and operate and ways to address underlying conditions that might give rise to terrorist grievances.[4]

            Why do media outlets favor episodic framing when covering acts of terrorism?  In the simplest terms, episodic framing makes “good pictures.”  “Episodic framing depicts concrete events that illustrate issues, while thematic framing presents collective or general evidence.”[5]  In surveying editors of news organizations in various countries, terrorism researcher Alex Schmid found that episodic frames are emphasized because thematic stories might be perceived as explaining away a violent act, or legitimating terrorist violence.[6]  Others have found a similar motivation: media outlets tend to use official government frames of a terrorist incident rather than risk inadvertently lending legitimacy and credibility to a violent terrorist group.[7]

            Why does this matter?  Media framing is an important function of how the public perceives actual threats to their security.  Many researchers have suggested that one effect of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was to increase the perceived threat, whereas the actual threat remained constant or even declined.[8]  Episodic framing is naturally going to dominate coverage in the moments after a terrorist incident—people want to know the immediate effects on themselves and people like them.  If Iyengar’s research is correct, lots of episodic framing of terrorism stories will tend to cause people to prioritize security measures when they think about terrorism.  If John Mueller is correct, people are thinking entirely too much about terrorism.  If combined, then the public is both overly concerned about the threat of terrorism, and calling for ever more costly counter-terrorism security measures, which may not be entirely justified.  The extent to which media cover incidents of terror, and the manner in which they frame those stories, can affect public opinion which may then shape policy.

“They have their reasons…you understand” 

            The general consensus is that terrorism is not under-reported—in fact many believe that terrorist incidents receive more media coverage than they ought and that more coverage results in more violence.  However, if we assume for a moment that the President is correct, and that some media outlets avoid covering terrorism, why would they do so; what are “their reasons” to which Present Trump alluded?  What could he have meant?  I believe there are three possible interpretations: 1.) the media have taken Thatcher’s admonition to heart and they do not wish to contribute to the terrorists’ cause; 2.) there is too little public demand for information about terrorist violence to bother with extensive reporting; 3.) the media are actively trying to mislead the public into a false sense of security by downplaying the threat posed them by terrorist violence.  The first seems unlikely since the President actively chastises the media for being “dishonest;” if their theoretical under-reporting was happening because they were trying to blunt terrorism’s effectiveness, then that might earn them some praise from the Commander in Chief.  The second is probably not what the President meant either: if it were true that no one cared enough about terrorism for the media to report on it, the President would have been critical of the public, not the media.

The third interpretation seems the most likely candidate.  Perhaps the best indicator of this is an interview of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway by CNN reporter Jake Tapper.  Conway pitched several alternative meanings behind the President’s MacDill Air Force Base statement.  First, Conway refined his position to say that while mass-casualty incidents receive attention, smaller incidents are not covered as thoroughly.  Second, she suggested that his intent was that he didn’t want people to become “inured” to terrorist violence.  This is patently illogical: over-reporting may lead to an audience being “inured” to something; under-reporting would simply make people unaware of a threat. Tellingly, she asserted that President Trump’s worry that the public may become “inured” is based on his concern that the public may accept terrorism as, “the new normal.”  According to Conway, the President worried that the American people could come to believe that they were adequately protected against a relatively unimportant threat of terrorism.  This might, she explained, undermine their support for President Trump’s so-called “extreme vetting” program.  Conway then turned to a favorite campaign trope that their former opponent’s use of the phrase “determined enemies” was a “light way of referring to ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”  Thus, by under-reporting incidents of terrorism, the media are intentionally undermining President Trump’s national security agenda.  The President’s message was that the media were not being tough enough, and were making the same mistake others have made by underestimating the threat the American public faces.


            The relationship between terrorism and media is critically important.  As a public safety issue, countering terrorist threats has captured the attention of policy makers and the public.  It is evident that how terrorism is framed in the news can affect public opinion.  Governments and violent groups will both attempt to apply the most compelling and sympathetic frames to incidents of terrorist violence.  In communicating their political messages, terror groups will try to co-opt news media as unwitting enablers.  In its pursuit of public safety, governments will try to balance manifest danger against much valued freedoms.

            The Trump White House presented a unique challenge to understanding the relationship between the media and terrorism.  The consensus has long been that just as terror groups rely on the media to broadcast their acts of violence, journalists have an incentive to cover dramatic events for busy, easily distracted consumers of news.  President Trump challenged that consensus by suggesting that the media are in fact not giving terrorist violence enough coverage.  His intimation that such under-reporting was intentional was especially vexing.  Interviews given by one of the President’s senior advisers sought to clarify his assertion and revealed a cynical emphasis on the political effects of failing to adequately report on terrorism.  The media have a responsibility to accurately report the news; a government has a responsibility to adequately shield its people from physical threats.  In a democratic society the relationship between the media, the people, and their government is vitally important.  The practical, policy effects of terrorism on modern society are transmitted through this tri-partite relationship.  Deficiencies in perception and inaccuracies in the transmittal of facts can produce inefficiency and lead to inappropriate responses.

[1]. LaFree, Gary, Laura Dugan & Erin Miller.  2015.  Putting Terrorism in Context: Lessons from the global terrorism database, New York: Routledge.

[2]. Brinson, M. & Stohl, M. 2009. “From 7/7 to 8/10: Media Framing of Terrorist Incidents in the United States and United Kingdom,” in David Canter, (ed) The Faces of Terrorism: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

[3]. For a classic experimental study of framing effects, see: Thomas Nelson, Rosalee Clawson, and Zoe Oxley. 1997. “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance,” American Political Science Review, 91:567-583.

[4]. Iyengar, S. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5]. Iyengar, S. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? p. 14.

[6]. Schmid, A. 1992.  “Editors Perspectives,” in Paletz & Schmid, (eds), Terrorism and the Media.

[7]. Norris, P., Kern M., & Just, M. 2003.  “Framing Terrorism.”  in P. Norris, M. Kern, & M. Just (eds), Framing Terrorism.  New York: Routledge Press.

[8]. See for example: Mueller, John & Mark G. Stewart.  2011.  Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs or Homeland Security.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.