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The Mass Media Reports Massive Distortions


Anyone who saw the ABC debate yesterday know full well how low mass media can go to accomplish their perceived objectives. They believe that audiences will continue to accept the biases that they report for the benefit of their corporate masters. Fortunately, their ratings have been falling dramatically because there are now more alternative outlets for news dissemination. In that regard, below is part of a chapter from a book that my daughter sent me. She is in a PHD program in clinical psychology and this piece is authored by her professors. This is a detailed study, but it is worth reading in full.

The Strategy of Terrorism and the
Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear
James Breckenridge Philip G Zimbardo

Throughout the history of violent conflict, adversaries have reasoned to terrorism when their opponents' superior material and Industrial assets prohibited a direct struggle for strategic goals. Acts of terror, especially suicide terrorism, represent a growing transnational threat due specifically to the psychological advantages terrorism possesses in modern asymmentcal warfare. Modern terrorism derives this tactical advantage from its reliable ability to evoke disproportionate fear and to create an enduring, pervasive apprehension of threat. Terrorists appear to have a keen, intuitive appreciation of psychological mechanisms that spread the effects of terror well beyond their primary victims and amplify the perception of risk and vulnerability far out of proportion to reasonable probabilities. Modern terrorism is necessarily mass-mediated political violence, and the media play a critical role in facilitating the psychological processes that intensify the public's fears and apprehensions.

Countering terrorists' intuitive use of the tactics of mass-mediated fear demands an appreciation of the underlying psychology and requires strategies that exploit scientific progress in understanding the nature of emotionally biased judgment and perception. Although scholarly works routinely acknowledge the psychological nature of terrorist strategy, few discuss the relevant psychological science in any detail. In this chapter we examine the psychological basis of terrorism and the important ways in which public reactions differ from responses to other tragic and disastrous events. People's reactions are more complex than a mere visceral sense of personal danger, and the multifaceted aspects of their fears can strongly influence the public's trust in and support for government policy. Disproportionate reactions to the threat of terrorism, we argue, result from emotionally driven biases associated with appraising risks and making decisions with uncertain prospects. The threat of terrorism is further augmented by a variety of socio-psychological processes, especially the priority that human attention assigns to negative information and the narrative frames with which the mass media surround reports of terrorist actions. Finally, we maintain that the threat of terrorism is made more menacing by stereotypical, dispositional explanations of evildoers, characterizations that arc also central to the terrorists' own view of the enemies they seek to harm. Acts of terrorism can serve many goals from simply injuring an enemy to venting longstanding hostilities

Negativity Bias

Human beings are much more powerfully influenced by negative than by positive information. Judgments concerning violence, the positive versus negative evaluative aspect of information are ubiquitous, automatic, and largely outside conscious awareness. The greater emotional force of negatively valenced material pervades human perception, impression formation, attention, judgment, and decision making, frequently in ways that appear irrational. Negative information tends to he construed as more informative and influential than positive data, and when positive and negative information are both presented together, the emphasis on the negative is greater than would be predicted for an equally weighted emotionally balanced combination. For example, research suggests that negative messages indicating the presence of risk are evaluated as more trustworthy than positive messages. Furthermore, with respect to political context, voters lend greater weight to negative information about candidates. Similarly, negativity bias can play a powerful role in shaping public trust. Negative events appear to have a greater impact on damaging public trust than positive events have on bolstering trust.

Negativity bias is also associated with observations of prospect theory. For example, people exhibit a pronounced risk aversion when decisions about uncertain outcomes are framed in terms of negative results. Thus, if the risks of a medical procedure are presented to a patient in terms of the odds of death, the patient will respond very differently than if the same risks are presented in terms of the chances of survival. Even though the odds of death and survival are necessarily codetermined, patients are less likely to consent to statistically equivalent risks when framed in terms of the negative outcome. In addition, people tend to overreact to small chances of bad outcomes, Furthermore, they subjectively overestimate the probability of highly undesirable but objectively rare outcomes. When intense negative emotions are involved, as in the case of all terrorist threats, our attention is captured by the dreaded outcome, and we overlook the relatively small chance of the threat actually occurring. Such “probability neglect" is an important contribution to sustaining disproportionate fears of terrorism. Because negativity biases and the emotional of risk perception are fundamental aspects of the psychology we all share, perceptions of threat can easily ripple through society. The propensity for social amplification further bolsters terrorist threats.

The Role of the Media

A primary strategic goal of terrorism is to communicate its message via violent acts. Consequently, the mass media have been called the essential "oxygen” of terrorism. It has been suggested that modern terrorism began only after the first television satellite was launched in the late 1960s. The terrorists aim to maximize their audience and commercial journalism's competition for readers and viewers have spawned a symbiotic terrorist-media relationship.

The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism recognized that the media could play a direct role in terrorism by "uncritically disseminating disinformation" and playing an indirect role through a pattern of selective coverage. Twenty-first century terrorists are no longer dependent upon formal media outlets to disseminate their message. Most national and international media outlets exercise disciplined restraint with respect to obvious terrorist propaganda and avoid replaying terrorist announcements or communiques. Unfortunately, terrorists can readily circumvent journalistic censorship. Recorded instructions and coded communications, as well as videos of executions beheadings, hostage pleadings, and “documentaries" of suicide bombings are now easily distributed over the Internet and non mainstream sources.

While terrorists are likely to continue to exploit the publicity potential of the Internet, the psychology of risk perception dictates that media coverage, especially television journalism will continue to play a crucial role in fueling public fears. Vivid, repetitive coverage of acts and threats of terror prime the cognitive and emotional processes that help create a disproportionate sense of risk and vulnerability. Images of terror become more readily available and underscore the sense of emotional dread. Domestic media accounts of terrorism capture public attention, and the perception of a greater risk of future attacks is heightened by the availability and affect heuristics.

Televised reporting of acts of terror appears to have stronger emotional impact than print news. Clearly, all of the tools of the modern film industry are available to television journalism, and only professional ethics and convention restrain the exploitation of high-production sound, music, graphics, animation, and video to deliver the maximum emotional impact. Compelling dramatic images of victims and their suffering personalize the implicit threat of terrorism, tacitly conveying a persuasive implication of the viewers' vulnerability. This has happened to people like us, therefore it could happen to us. The importance of truisms is underscored in studies of reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks. For instance, greater monitoring of television reports was associated with adverse reactions and increased media reliance before September 11 was associated with greater threat perceptions after the attacks. Contemporary trends in terrorist tactics further call attention to the media's critical role with ironic, but terrible consequences for working members of the press. Three developments characterize recent acts of terrorism. First, there has been a substantial increase in the lethality and brutality of terrorist acts, which may speak to the greater publicity value and inherently terrifying qualities associated with more dramatic violence.

In contrast to earlier policies employed by European terrorist groups (e.g., IRA and Basque ETA), which minimized casualties but maximized publicity by alerting police or journalists of planned bombings with sufficient time to allow evacuation, terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan prepare their own videos documenting the extent of death and damage of their efforts for distribution after attacks to maximize media exposure The growing technical proficiency of international television journalism creates an expanding market that may have provided such excesses with an unintended encouragement. In addition, the use of Web-based streaming video clips of beheadings and pleading hostages are often described, if not replayed, by professional media outlets. Second, anonymous acts of terrorism have increased but would have limited tactical value without media dissemination. Dramatic graphic media coverage of anonymous, unattributed acts of terror such as suicide bombings nevertheless incites fear and apprehension among the public. Third, there has been an increase in terrorist attacks on journalists, a tragic indicator of the media's indispensable role in the strategy of terrorism. Media's selection and framing of news events and the public's trust in media analysis and reporting reveal a powerful bias toward coverage of negative events and outcomes. In their recent comprehensive review of the intersection of media, communication, and psychology, Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (2003) conclude that people relate to mediated events in ways that reflect fundamental psychological processes that affect human information processing. In particular, they note that human attention and memory supported by "hardwired' neuropsychophysical processes assign priority to negatively balanced high-arousal stimuli. The underlying processes occur automatically and without conscious awareness and are probably the result of evolutionary advantages accrued from increased vigilance to potential threats. Memory for events following negative and high-arousal stimuli is proactively enhanced, and prior material is retroactively inhibited.

Thus, psychological processes give priority to negative arousing material, and the news media act in accordance with the psychology of their audience. The media create a wider audience of spectators to terrorist acts while intensifying their emotional reactions, which engenders a greater sense of threat if the availability and affect heuristics contribute to a disproportionate perception of risk and vulnerability. The media, especially television, augment and exacerbate the underlying psychology. In addition to serving as a source of intense emotional stimuli, the media play a crucial role in profoundly shaping the public's understanding of terrorism. In fact, almost all areas of political interests are influenced by the media's powerful ability to set agendas and frame our understanding of events. The media's influence lies not so much with its potential to persuade or to propagandize but rather with its reliable capacity to determine the facts, data, arguments, explanations, and theories to which its audience attends. The media tend not so much to persuade us but to dictate the facts, choices, or questions we should consider, evaluate, or debate. Risk perceptions are not exclusively emotional indeed. Risk appraisals also depend on our ability to project future implications on the basis of our understanding of present circumstances. With respect to terrorism, our understanding of present circumstances is heavily dependent upon the news media's determination of what to report and how to report it, and this determination begins with how reports are framed.

Studies suggest that news coverage of terrorism after the initial focus on the details of the act and the government's early response during the aftermath rapidly (often in only a few weeks) restricts consideration of alternative explanations and motives for the attack. One study of terrorist reporting in a prominent national newspaper, for instance, found that, while the volume of coverage devoted to the September 11 attack continued for many months, the number of alternative reasons, explanations or motives considered diminished dramatically within just a few weeks. Another study of editorials for the ten largest U.S. newspapers during the year after September 11 concluded that editors quickly, within the first month, arrived at a consistent, consensus narrative frame of the "war on terrorism" with little disagreement or dissent.

Even the decision to characterize an act of political violence as “terrorism" is subject to implicit editorial biases. For instance, many studies indicate that regional media tend to report incidents of political violence against their own citizens as acts of terror but use other terms for similar acts against foreigners elsewhere. Subtle variations in the use of descriptive terms can have very different psychological and political implications. Our own preliminary results in an ongoing study of terrorist media coverage reveal interesting variations in reports of a suicide bombing attack after a recent truce agreement with the new Palestinian government. While most countries explicitly described the attack as a suicide bombing, most Israeli sources consistently omitted the term "suicide,” perhaps choosing to stress the damage to civilians over terms that convey the sense of martyrdom the terrorists seek to emphasize. In addition, we found considerable variation among the framing of this event among U.S. newspapers. We observed that front-page headlines describing the incident were split between those framing it as a major threat to a fragile truce and those emphasizing the act of suicide bombing.

Not only can mass media's preference for controversy over scientific subtleties and careful exposition of risks elevate the public's sense of danger and vulnerability, but it can also limit the public's understanding of the enemy. This is clear with respect to an understanding of the mind of the terrorist, a distortion that has potential to further exacerbate public fears.

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Sheldon Drobny Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Sheldon Drobny was the co-founder of Nova M radio and Air America Radio. He has supported many philanthropic causes. Mr. Drobny specializes in business and tax matters and is admitted to practice before the U.S. Tax Court as a non-attorney. Less (more...)
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