Reporting on terror attacks

newspaper-with-terrorism-headline

By: Yadira Nieves-Pizarro

Terrorism is a constant threat in the Western World and mainstream media in the United States will cover such stories as they develop in the homeland and Europe. Consider the treatment given to the incidents occurred in France and Germany by the New York Times and the Washington Post during the summer of 2016. First, let’s examine the patterns of coverage of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France. Second, let’s survey a series of small-scale attacks perpetrated in Germany during the month of July. In line with framing theory, I will use existing terrorism frames to assess the news coverage of The New York Times and The Washington Post during July 2016 (Li, 2007; Semetko & Valkenburg, 2000; Woods, 2007).

Terrorism, which often manifests itself in coordinated incidents that result in multiple deaths and violence, is a pervasive topic in news today. News coverage about terrorism may underline some issues over others influencing the audiences’ “attitudes, beliefs and behaviors” (Li, 2007, p. 672). Woods (2007) explains further that audiences perceive terrorism danger as more imminent and catastrophic because of its “newness” and “dread” (p. 5). Furthermore, the salience of the topic amplifies the perception of risk and thus the audiences’ need for “information, explanations and interpretations” from the news media (Li, 2007, p. 670; Woods, 2007).

Existing literature has examined particular news frames in relation to news coverage of terrorism. Semetko & Valkenburg (2000) developed generic frames such as conflict, attribution of responsibility, human interest, economic consequences and morality. The conflict frame underscores the diverging nature of the topic by stressing the polarization between two institutions, groups, or ideologies. Next, the attribution of responsibility frame assigns responsibility for the problem to an individual, institution or government. Following, the human-interest frame emphasizes people who are or will be affected by this problem. Meanwhile, the economic consequences frame focuses on the consequences events or issues will have on people or institutions. Finally, the morality frame accentuates the moral and religious traits of the event or issue.

Conversely, Woods (2007) evaluates terrorism frames in terms of if journalists rely or not on official or what is known as government sources; if the story supports/opposes the use of military force to contain the terrorism threat; or supports/opposes liberties reduction for the same purposes. Likewise, the article may associate religion with terrorism referring to the committers as “Islamic extremists” or “Muslim radicals”. Finally, Li (2007) assesses terrorism frames in terms of if the story emphasizes on political leaders, issues and policies; the economic impact or cost of the events; the environmental impact, be it human or natural; as well as human disaster or well being stories or crime investigation.

The question remains, what are the coverage patterns of the New York Times and the Washington Post with regards to the Bastille Day Nice, France and a Germany attacks on July 2016? To study the coverage of elite newspapers, a content analysis was done using a purposive sample of news stories on both subjects. The articles were recovered from Lexis Nexis using the keywords “terrorist attacks Nice, France” and “terrorist attack Germany”. A total of 20 stories were analyzed.

When analyzing Semetko & Valkenburg’s (2000) generic news frames used in both incidents, most stories focused on the attribution of responsibility for the attacks to ISIS, Islamic or Muslim militants (70%), followed by human interest focusing on the stories of the victims (15%) (See Table 1).

Table 1: Generic frames

Incident Total
Terror attack in Nice, France on Bastille Day Series of terror attacks in Germany Summer 2016
Generic frames Conflict   0 2 2
  0.0% 100.0% 100.0%
  0.0% 20.0% 10.0%
Attribution of responsibility   7 7 14
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  70.0% 70.0% 70.0%
Human Interest   2 1 3
  66.7% 33.3% 100.0%
  20.0% 10.0% 15.0%
Morality frame   1 0 1
  100.0% 0.0% 100.0%
  10.0% 0.0% 5.0%
Total   10 10 20
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

When observing Woods’ (2007) terrorism risk frames, sources associated religion with terrorism referring to the executors as extremists or radicals (40%), followed closely by a heavy use of official or government sources leading the narrative (35%) (See Table 2).

Table 2: Terrorism risk frame

Incident Total
Terror attack in Nice, France on Bastille Day Series of terror attacks in Germany Summer 2016
Terrorism risk frame Government-source dominant   4 3 7
  57.1% 42.9% 100.0%
  40.0% 30.0% 35.0%
Supports military response   0 1 1
  0.0% 100.0% 100.0%
  0.0% 10.0% 5.0%
Supports liberties reduction   0 1 1
  0.0% 100.0% 100.0%
  0.0% 10.0% 5.0%
Religion associated with terrorism   4 4 8
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  40.0% 40.0% 40.0%
Non government-source dominant   2 1 3
  66.7% 33.3% 100.0%
  20.0% 10.0% 15.0%
Total   10 10 20
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

In the case of Li’s (2007) coverage frames, the criminal investigation aspect was more salient (40%), followed closely by the focus on politics and politicians in the handling of the ongoing terror threat (35%) (See Table 3).

Table 3: Coverage frame

Incident Total
Terror attack in Nice, France on Bastille Day Series of terror attacks in Germany Summer 2016
Coverage frame Political   2 5 7
  28.6% 71.4% 100.0%
  20.0% 50.0% 35.0%
Human Interest   4 1 5
  80.0% 20.0% 100.0%
  40.0% 10.0% 25.0%
Criminal   4 4 8
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  40.0% 40.0% 40.0%
Total   10 10 20
  50.0% 50.0% 100.0%
  100.0% 100.0% 100.0%

In conclusion, the news coverage of terrorism by the New York Times and the Washington Post is more likely to attribute responsibility to Islamic militant groups and the Muslim religion from the onset. Official sources and political actors dominate the storyline often alluding to the need of reinforcing the national security. Interestingly, many stories delved into the victim’s lives highlighting the human-interest aspect of terrorism. In the particular case of the series of terrorist attacks in Germany, many stories showcased the repercussions of government policies for refugees.

For journalists, dealing with developing news is a challenge. Working on developing news about terrorism defies a society’s preconceived notions about who the terrorist attacks perpetrators are and what are their motives. Often many of the stories lack context and rhetoric of reinforcing security and reducing civil liberties abound after terrorism incidents occur. More human-interest stories and a better balance of sources may provide the audience with the “information, explanations and interpretations” (Li, 2007, p. 670) that are more a tune with the bigger picture of terror.

References

Li, X. (2007). Stages of a Crisis and Media Frames and Functions: US Television Coverage of the 9/11 Incident during the First 24 Hours. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 51(4), 670 – 687.

Semetko, H. & Valkenburg, P. (2000). Framing European politics: A content analysis of press and television news. Journal of Communication. 50(2), 93–109.

Woods, J. (2007). What we Talk about when we Talk about Terrorism: Elite Press Coverage of Terrorism Risk from 1997-2005. Press/Politics. 12(3), 3 – 20.

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