Characterizations of the "911" Attack and Perpetrators in Three U.S. Elite
College of Mass Communication and Media Arts
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Mailing address: 1985 Evergreen Terrace, #5
Carbondale, IL. 62901
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
To be considered for the MacDougall Student Paper Award
Characterizations of the "911" Attack and Perpetrators in Three U.S. Elite
The topic of media coverage of political violence is not only of recent
concern. Government officials, when facing political violence threatening
the lives and properties of their countrymen, often advocate for the least
possible media coverage of the violent events. In the aftermath of the 1985
TWA hijacking, for instance, former British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher criticized media coverage for being an ally of terrorism and urged
news organizations to find "ways to starve the terrorist… of the oxygen of
publicity" by limiting their coverage of terrorism (Apple, 1985). Her
underlying assumption here is, as Schlesinger, Murdock, and Elliott (1983)
put it, if a terrorist incident went unreported by the media, it would
simply disappear by itself.
Unfortunately characteristics of political violence, such as timeliness,
conflict, and sensationalism, fit perfectly under the requirement of
newsworthiness in the journalism profession (Traugott and Brader, 2002) and
make terrorism coverage an irresistible temptation for the mass media. It
undoubtedly takes a totalitarian regime to force its mass media to shut the
camera at the presence of such sensational events. In democratic societies,
as a consequence, the media fumble ahead with a haunting dilemma: on the
one hand, they aim at professionalism, trying to provide an overall view of
an event with as little bias as possible; on the other hand, they have to
avoid the charges of being "terrorist sympathizers," or even worse,
The mass media's performance in coping with this dilemma is reflected in
how the media frame incidents of political violence. Media framing has,
since it was introduced by Bateson (1972), been understood as a process of
selecting and packaging ongoing issues (Entman, 1993; Iyengar, 1991; Ryan,
1991; Ryan and Sim, 1990; Schon & Rein, 1994). The concept of framing
involves both inclusion and exclusion. Through including (therefore
emphasizing) and excluding (therefore de-emphasizing) such elements as key
words, information sources, and sentences forming certain themes (Entman,
1991), media actors (mostly journalists) are able to create a frame wherein
their audience are supposed to understand "a reality."
The way a news event is framed considerably affects the public's
perception. Tuersky and Kahneman (1982), for instance, observed that people
reversed their preference when a problem was framed in different ways.
Krosnick and Alwin (1988), similarly, proposed that the ways questions were
framed affected people's responses to attitude surveys and public opinion
polls. Further studies demonstrated that framing effect was not limited to
public opinion, but also extended to areas such as individual behavior
(e.g., Rothman, Salovey, Antone, Keough, & Martin, 1993; Wilson, Wallston,
& King, 1990). Therefore, it is of great significance to understand the way
political violence is framed in the mass media.
Past research investigated a whole series of variables ranging from topics
and story types to sources and labels used for characterizing the events
and perpetrators of political violence. Although the majority of stories
about political violence in daily newspapers and newsmagazines are hard
news, it cannot be taken for granted that such reportage is an objective
representation of what actually happens out there. As Epstein (1975)
insightfully noted, the truth about an issue is established through the
media's entire dependence on "self-interested 'sources'" (p. 3).
Sources and characterizations are among the most frequently addressed
variables in studies on media coverage of political violence. As the
processors and managers in conveying information through the media, sources
function as important filters of news (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). Past
research has repeatedly demonstrated that official sources often receive
emphasis in media coverage (Ryan, 1991; Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1980;
Lasora and Reese, 1990; Haller, 1996), especially when concerning political
violence (Atwater, 1987; Berkowitz, 1987; Paletz, Fozzard, and Ayanian,
1982; Zeng, 2002), while those viewpoints conflicting with the authority
are rarely voiced (Gallimore, 1991; Picard, 1986). Miller (1982) also
pointed out the problem of the media being "uncritical reflector" of
official viewpoints (p. 17).
Another important feature of media coverage is the characterization of acts
of political violence and those who perpetrate them (Weimann, 1985). As
Miller (1982) suggested, source-dependency is an important variable in the
manner in which perpetrators and behaviors of political violence are
portrayed. That is to say, media coverage can be biased accounts for or
against political violence and perpetrators. Numerous studies have
investigated media use of labels employed for characterizing violent acts
and perpetrators. The terms "terrorist" and "terrorism" are found on top of
the list of labels by U.S. newspapers and newsmagazines when referring to
political violence and people behind such events (e.g., Epstein, 1977;
Simmons, 1991). A widely adopted practice in labeling studies is to divide
the characterizations of incidents of political violence and perpetrators
into three categories, negative, neutral, and positive. Weimann (1985), for
example, suggested three categories of labels concerning political
violence. According to him, negative labels are unfavorable words such as
murderers and saboteurs, neutral ones include guerillas and army, and
positive ones are favorable terms like patriots and freedom fighters. Later
research showed that negative labels in U.S. newspapers and newsmagazines
outnumbered labels with positive loadings (Steuter, 1990; Weimann and Winn,
1994), especially when American nationals were victimized or when the U.S.
policy was challenged (Simmons and Lowry, 1990; Zeng, 2002).
A 1991 study by Picard and Adams deserves special attention here. The
content analysis of the three elite U.S. daily newspapers' coverage of
political violence from 1980 through 1985 distinguishes itself from other
studies in this area in at least two senses. For one thing, instead of
following the usual approach of a three-category label analysis, Picard and
Adams suggested dichotomizing characterizations into two categories:
nominal and descriptive. According to them, nominal characterizations carry
as little subjective judgment as possible while descriptive ones convey
connotative meanings. Therefore negative and positive labels identified in
earlier studies mostly fall under the descriptive category, while neutral
terms are now in the nominal category, which eventually helps provide a
clearer view of whether media coverage of political violence are as
objective as the Western media have so far alleged to be. For another
thing, unlike other studies that treat source and characterization as
separate and unrelated variables, Picard and Adams analyzed the use of
characterizations by different sources, thus enabling the tracing of label
usage tendency by each source. The results revealed that sources differ
significantly in their choice of characterizations. Government officials
tended to use more inflammatory and sensational terms, while media
personnel and witnesses used words with less judgmental loadings. The
authors also found that the media seldom quoted primary sources such as
witnesses and government officials. To put it another way, the stories were
mostly description and interpretation by the media themselves. Furthermore,
for media characterizations, which accounted for 94.3 percent of the total
characterizations, a significant difference existed between
characterizations of acts and those of perpetrators. Specifically, the data
demonstrated nominal characterizations were used most of the time when
referring to acts, but more descriptive terms were employed in
The conclusion of the study was not immune to challenge since Picard and
Adams (1991) chose without explanation to analyze only the first three
characterizations of direct quotes and the first three of non-quotes in
each news story, which meant that the picture they drew may not reflect the
total features of characterization usage in the three newspapers.
The present study analyzes coverage of the bombings of the World Trade
Center twin towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 in the Los
Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, which are the
same elite U.S. newspapers Picard and Adams (1991) used for their
characterization and source study. Based on their content analysis, this
study asks the following research questions:
RQ1: What are the most frequently used characterizations of "911"
perpetrators in the three elite U.S. daily newspapers?
RQ2: What are the most frequently used characterizations of the "911"
attack in the three elite U.S. daily newspapers?
RQ3: Do characterizations of "911" perpetrators differ depending upon their
RQ4: Do characterizations of the "911" attack differ depending upon their
RQ5: Do types of characterizations for the attack and perpetrators combined
differ depending upon their sources?
RQ6: By which source are characterizations of the "911" attack and
perpetrators more likely to be expressed?
RQ7: Does the media source use different types of characterizations when
referring to the act and perpetrators of the "911" attack?
Research question 3 will be answered through two hypotheses:
H1: The official source uses a higher percentage of descriptive
characterizations than the media source when referring to "911" perpetrators.
H2: The official source uses a higher percentage of descriptive
characterizations than the witness source when referring to "911" perpetrators.
Research question 4 will be answered through two hypotheses:
H3: The official source uses a higher percentage of descriptive
characterizations than the media source when referring to "911" attack.
H4: The official source uses a higher percentage of descriptive
characterizations than the witness source when referring to "911" attack.
Research question 6 will be answered through the following hypothesis:
H5: The official source is more frequently referred to than the witness source.
Research question 7 will be answered through two hypotheses:
H6: The media source uses more nominal than descriptive characterizations
when referring to the "911" attack.
H7: The media source uses more descriptive than nominal characterizations
when referring to "911" perpetrators.
A comprehensive content analysis was conducted to answer the above research
questions and test the hypotheses.
The stories analyzed in this study are taken from the three elite U.S.
daily newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los
Angeles Time. The time period under analysis is one week from the bombings,
that is, from September 11th through September 17th, 2001. Because there is
no existing database of the stories for the present study, a keyword
browsing for "World Trade Center" or "Pentagon" in the three newspapers for
the seven-day period was conducted using the Lexis-Nexis news database.
From the total of 2,037 stories retrieved, a systematic random sample of
204 stories was selected.
To obtain an overall view of the data, variables coded for each story
include date, position in the newspaper, story length, byline, and story
type. Byline is coded as wire service, such as the Reuters or the
Associated Press, or local, including newspaper staff writers or the
general public, or both, as a collective contribution by both wire service
and local authors. Story type refers to hard news, commentary, or feature
story. Hard news usually appears in news columns and is mostly an update of
the event or its effect in political, economic, cultural, and other aspects
of the society. Commentaries include editorials, letters to editor, and
other comments by newspaper staff or the public, which are generally
published in "Editorial Desk." Feature stories are frequently identified as
"feature" in the newspaper, and they provide a more in-depth view of the
event and contain a lot of relevant information from any possible perspectives.
Each characterization appearing in a story was taken down and coded for
three variables. The first variable is the object of characterization, that
is, who/ what is labeled, the attack or perpetrators? The second variable
is type of characterization, which is either nominal or descriptive, as
Picard and Adams (1991) classified in their study. Following their
dichotomy, nominal terms merely present what happened and, if possible, who
did that. They are mostly nouns, verbal nouns and verbs with the least
possible connotative loadings. Examples are "hijacking," "attack(s),"
"event(s)," "assault(s)," etc. Descriptive labels, however, describe the
event and perpetrators using personal judgments. Many descriptive words are
adjectives such as "terrorist," " evil," "despicable," but nouns like
"carnage," "terror," "criminal," "murder," "terrorism" are also
descriptive. Some expressions, for example, "act of war," "war against
freedom," "war against civilization," etc., are also coded as descriptive
in this study due to the inflammatory nature of the terms and the
connotative meanings they contain.
The third variable, source, is the origin for each characterization of the
event or perpetrators used in the story. Four categories are coded for this
variable. The first category is the official source, including U.S.
government officials and law enforcement personnel. The second category,
witnesses of the event, includes whoever was present at the locale of the
attack, including passengers on board the hijacked airplanes. However,
those who were not present at the bombings but learned about the incident
merely through interpersonal conversation or the mass media are not counted
as witnesses. The third category is the media source, namely the authors of
the news story. The last category, other, includes all sources not included
in the first three categories.
The characterization words in the headline of each story are also coded in
the same way as described in the previous text. However, they are not
counted in the coding of characterization terms in the body of each story,
because a word in a headline is not equally weighed as one in the text.
Intercoder reliability is measured between the author and an independent
coder, who was not informed of the research questions and hypotheses until
after the coding work. A random sample of 30 stories (14.7% of the total)
was picked from the sampling frame after the original sample of 204 was
drawn (i.e., picked from the remaining 1,833 stories in the sampling
frame). The two coders did the coding independently according to a coding
book provided by the author. The coding book consists of operational
definitions of each variable and relative categories. The intercoder
reliability ranged from .86 to 1.00, using the Holsti's formula (Holsti,
1969). Specifically, the intercoder reliability of 1.00, a perfect
agreement, is reached for page number, story type and byline, and .86 for
characterizations identified, .97 for object of characterization, .90 for
type of characterizations, and .94 for source.
Once high intercoder reliability was established, the coding of the total
204 stories was done by the independent coder, who participated in the
intercoder reliability test, making it a single-coder content analysis
Findings and Discussion
In the sampling frame of 2,037 news stories, 488 articles are published in
the Los Angeles Times (24%), 1040 in the New York Times (51%), and 509 in
the Washington Post (25%). The present study analyzed 204 stories. Table 1
displays the distribution of descriptive statistics such as newspapers,
date, page number, story type, and byline. The average length of stories
under analysis is 888 words. Half of the news articles are from the New
York Times (50.5%), with the remaining half nearly equally divided between
the Los Angeles Times (24.0%) and the Washington Post (25.5%), which
approximately reflects the proportions by newspaper in the population and
indicate at least in some degree that the sample is representative of the
universe. Except for the day on which the bombings took place, there is
approximately an equal number of stories for each of the six days from
September 12th through 17th. Although the majority of the articles are
published on inside pages, it should be noted that one out of ten stories
appear on the front page, suggesting that the event was treated as
momentous and highly newsworthy.
Table 1: Descriptive Statistics of the Total 204 Stories
(Number of Stories)
Percentage of Total (%)
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
Wire and Local
Average Length of Story: 888 words
Hard news accounts for 86.3 percent of the total stories and commentary
10.8 percent, the remaining being in-depth feature stories. For 97.5
percent of the time the newspapers depended exclusively upon themselves for
news material, and another 1 percent of the time they cooperated with
various wire services, while wire services alone provided only 1.5 percent
of the 204 stories.
Before answering the research questions, it might be revealing to take a
look at the headline data. Altogether 148 characterization words are
recorded for the headlines, 94.6 percent of which are characterizations of
the "911" attack (Table 2). Approximately one quarter of the total are
descriptive terms and the remaining are nominal. Most of the
characterizations are by the media (98%), with an exception of 2 percent by
the official source, but none by witnesses. "Attack" and "attacked" are the
most frequently appearing characterization words in headline, with the
former accounting for 43.9 percent and the latter 20.9 percent of the
total. "Terror" is the third most frequent characterization, representing
13.5 percent of the recorded total.
Table 2: Summary of Headline Characterizations
Frequency (Number of Characterizations)
Percentage of Total (%)
Object of Characterizations
Type of Characterizations
To answer research question 1, a total of 207 characterizations of "911"
perpetrators are identified in the body of stories. The word "terrorist(s)"
is the most frequently appearing, alone accounting for 59.9 percent of the
total (Table 3). The second most frequent characterization word is
"hijacker(s)", amounting to approximately a quarter of the total usage
(24.2%). Two additional characterizations, "attacker(s)" and
"extremist(s)", tie for the third position, each contributing to 4.8
percent of the total number of characterizations of perpetrators. The only
remaining characterization word that accounts for at least 1 percent of the
total is "fundamentalist(s)", adding another 1.4 percent and bringing the
total to 96.2 percent represented by the five top-ranked characterization
Table 3: Characterizations of "911" Perpetrators
Number of Uses
Percentage of Total (%)
A total of 894 characterizations of the "911" attack are recorded to answer
research question 2. Comparing to characterizations of "911" perpetrators,
not only is there a considerably higher frequency of appearance of
characterizations, but the number of different words used in describing the
attack is remarkably larger than that of words used when referring to
perpetrators. The three most frequent characterization terms are
"attack(s)", "terrorist", and "terrorism" (Table 4). The most frequent
word, "attack(s)", and the second most frequent word, "terrorist", together
represent nearly half of the total number of characterizations of the "911"
attack. Five words come next in the ranking of frequency, which are
"hijacked/ hijacking", "tragedy", "disaster", "terror", and "destruction".
The five characterization terms add another 23.7 percent of the total to
the 61.9 percent accounted for by the three top-ranked characterization
words. An additional five words that accounted for at least 1 percent of
the total are "assault", "war against (freedom, civilization, U.S.)",
"catastrophe", "evil", and "carnage", bringing to 91.7 percent the
percentage of the total resulting from all characterizations accounting for
at least 1 percent.
Table 4: Characterizations of the "911" Attack
Number of Uses
Percentage of Total (%)
War (against freedom, civilization, U.S.)
Chi-square analysis is conducted to answer the research question of whether
the sources differ in the type of perpetrator characterizations they
employ. The results presented in Table 5 suggest that there are differences
in the type of characterizations used by different sources. Nonetheless,
due to the problem of two cells with frequencies lower than 5, the
conclusion cannot be drawn that the differences are significant. The same
data are reanalyzed after treating the two low frequency cells (the witness
characterizations) as missing data. The results of reanalysis are presented
in Table 6. The chi-square value of 8.333 at two degrees of freedom
indicates that there exist statistically significant differences in the
type of perpetrator characterizations by the three sources, official,
media, and other (p. < .05). As displayed in Table 6, the media source uses
a higher percentage (77.1%) of descriptive perpetrator characterizations
than the media source (66.9%). Therefore, hypothesis 1 is supported.
However, due to the low frequency cells in Table 5, hypothesis 2 cannot be
tested. Regardless of source difference, nominal characterizations account
for only 27.7 percent of the total, while descriptive characterizations
represent a large majority (72.3%) of all the 202 recorded perpetrator
Table 5: Characterizations of "911" Perpetrators by Different Sources
Source of Characterizations
X2 = 14.590, df = 3, p. = .002
Table 6: Characterizations of "911" Perpetrators by Different Sources
(Witness Source Treated as Missing Value)
Source of Perpetrator Characterizations
Nominal Perpetrator Characterizations
Descriptive Perpetrator Characterizations
X2 = 8.333, df = 2, p. = .016
Characterizations of the "911" attack by sources present a different
picture. The total number of nominal characterizations for attack (519
uses, accounting for 58.1 % of the total 894 attack characterizations) does
not differ dramatically from that of descriptive terms (375 uses,
accounting for 41.9% of the total), as shown in Table 7. While the official
source and other source still use fewer nominal than descriptive
characterizations when referring to the attack as they do for perpetrators,
nominal attack characterizations by the media outnumber descriptive attack
characterizations. What is even more noteworthy is that all the 13 attack
characterizations by the witness source are nominal. The chi-square value
of 46.263 at three degrees of freedom shows that the differences are
statistically significant (p. < .001). Both hypotheses 3 and 4 are
supported, since the official source uses a higher percentage (64%) of
descriptive attack terms than the media source (36.9%) and the witness
Table 7: Characterizations of the "911" Attack by Different Sources
Source of Attack Characterizations
Nominal Attack Characterizations
Descriptive Attack Characterizations
X2 = 46.263, df = 3, p. = .000
Research question 5 asks whether the type of characterizations regardless
of the object they characterize differ by source. As shown in Table 8,
there exist significant differences in the type of characterizations used
by various sources (X2 = 56.333, p. < .001), which replicated the findings
by Picard and Adams (1991). Additionally, in high agreement with previous
research (Picard and Adams, 1991), the findings of this study demonstrate
that both the media and the witness sources tend to use more nominal than
descriptive characterizations. As a contrast, official characterizations
tend to be descriptive, which is also the case with other source.
Table 8: Characterizations by Different Sources
Source of Characterizations
X2 = 56.333, df = 3, p. = .000
The results in Table 9 answer the research question of whether there is a
difference in source attribution. As the table displays, the news media are
the most frequently referred to among the four types of sources,
contributing 72.2 percent of the combined total of 1,101 characterizations
recorded in the study. The official source ranks second,
Table 9: Summary of Source Attribution
Number of Uses
Percentage of Total (%)
X2 = 1348.893, df = 3, p. = .000
accounting for 14.5 percent of the total. Very rarely were witnesses sought
to contribute to characterizations (a negligible 1.6 %). Compared to a
previous study (Picard and Adams, 1991), where the media source contributed
to 94.3 percent of total characterizations, our results suggest that over
the past twenty years there have been changes in source attribution in the
coverage of political violence by the three elite newspapers.
The changes have two-fold indication since Picard and Adams (1991)
criticized that primary sources were quoted at too low a percentage to
qualify the newspaper coverage of political violence as good media
practice. On one hand it seems encouraging that primary sources such as
officials and witnesses were used at a higher percentage than they were in
the early 1990s, when the official source and witnesses totaled less than 6
percent. On the other hand, it is misleading if officials and witnesses are
combined under the same category primary source. The trick demands simple
mathematical calculation. While the combined percentage increases from 5.7
percent to the present 16.1 percent in twenty years, the official source
has undoubtedly acquired a remarkably larger share in the total, but the
witness source holds an even smaller proportion (1.6%) than it did two
decades ago (2.4%).
The largest shareholder among all sources is still the news media, although
it has already sacrificed some of its proportion. A total of 795 combined
Table 10: Types of Media Characterizations of the "911" Attack and Perpetrators
Object of Characterizations
X2 = 42.383, df = 1, p. = .000
characterizations are recorded. As shown in Table 10, a large majority
(82.5%) are characterizations of the "911" attack, with the remaining 17.5
percent devoted to characterization of perpetrators. It is worthwhile to
take a closer look at the media's use of these two types of characterizations.
Among the characterizations of "911" perpetrators by the media, the word
ranked first is "terrorist(s)", alone accounting for 57.6 percent of the
total (Table 11). The second most frequent term is "hijacker(s)", adding
another 29.5 percent to the total. Two additional words, "extremist(s)" and
"attacker(s)", account for more than 1 percent, bringing the total
percentage represented by characterizations above the 1 percent threshold
to 97.2 percent of all 139 recorded media characterizations of perpetrators.
Table 11: Characterizations of "911" Perpetrators by Media
Number of Uses
Percentage of Total (%)
A total of 656 characterizations of the "911" attack are employed by the
media source. The top five characterizations accounted for 76.9 percent of
the total media characterizations of the attack (Table 12). These terms are
Table 12: Characterizations of the "911" Attack by Media
Number of Uses
Percentage of Total (%)
"terrorism", "hijacked/ hijacking", and "devastation". An additional five
words each represented at least 1 percent of the total, bringing the
percentage to 90.8 percent.
The results presented in Table 10 also answers research question 7, which
asks whether the type of media characterizations differs on the object
characterized. Of the 139 characterizations the media source employs to
describe "911" perpetrators fewer than one third are nominal terms (33.1%).
In contrast, 63.1 percent of the 656 attack characterizations by the media
are nominal words. This suggests that the media tend to use descriptive
terms to characterize perpetrators of the "911" attack, but are more likely
to employ nominal words when referring to the event, which again replicate
Picard and Adams' findings (1991). The Chi-square value of 42.383 at one
degree of freedom shows that hypotheses 9 and 10 are both supported (p. <
Discussion and Limitations
This study examines the patterns of the three U.S. elite daily newspapers
in their coverage of the "911" attack during the one-week period since its
occurrence. The results replicated past research (e.g., Picard and Adams,
1991) aspects of its findings: First, characterizations of acts and
perpetrators of political violence differ significantly by source; second,
in characterizing perpetrators of the "911" attack, officials, the media
and other sources all tend to employ words that involve more or less
subjective judgment and personal color and are often inflammatory; third,
the media source is still the most frequently referred to among all types
of sources. However, only officials and other sources demonstrate
significantly heavier reliance on descriptive terms when characterizing the
"911" attack; the media source uses far more nominal characterizations than
descriptive words, and witnesses use only nominal terms in describing the
event. Taken all the characterizations of the attack and perpetrators as a
whole, significant differences still exist in the type of characterizations
by various sources. Witnesses and the media are the two sources that tend
to employ nominal characterizations while officials and other sources are
more likely to use descriptive terms.
A higher percentage of primary source quotation is identified in this
study, as compared to past research. The media source accounts for only
72.2 percent of the total, compared with 94.3 percent previously reported
by Picard and Adams (1991). The change suggests that the three newspapers
are working towards the "good practice" target, which Picard and Adams
criticized that the papers fell far short of. The progress should be
qualified, nonetheless, in the sense that the measurement in this study is
somewhat different from what Picard and Adams used a decade ago.
It must also be noted that among the 1,101 characterizations recorded in
the analysis, only a very low percentage are quoted directly or indirectly
from witnesses. The percentage dropped from 2.4 percent in Picard and
Adams' study (1991) to the present 1.6 percent, making the already small
share even more negligible. Witnesses are, in the strict sense, the only
primary source available for coverage of the "911" attack, since
perpetrators of the attack are inaccessible. Therefore, if, as Picard and
Adams (1991) indicated, quotation from primary source is a criterion for
good media practice, the three newspapers are doing a poorer rather than a
better job than they used to.
Although no readily existing explanations have been identified in the
literature (Picard and Adams, 1991), some factors may partially explain the
tendencies in the type of characterizations employed by various sources.
First, the government's function as the authority, particularly in times of
political violence against its own regime, determines that the government
will try to lead the nation's judgment of the violent event and those who
commit it. As numerous studies (e.g., Wilkinson, 1977 ) have noted, in
fighting against incidents of political violence, democratic governments
frequently overreact to the extent as to limit the freedoms enjoyed by the
public. Therefore, it is not unexpected that the government source tends to
take every chance to add its own judgmental value in characterizing such
events and perpetrators by using inflammatory terms, which are descriptive
according to the definition in this study. Second, in addition to quoting
the U.S. government, the three newspapers under analysis also depend
heavily on foreign governments and international organizations such as the
U.N. and the NATO, which form a considerable part of the "other" source.
Similar to the government of the regime which is the target of the
political violent event, foreign governments and international
organizations also describe such incidents and perpetrators according to
their own interests, therefore ending up with the "other" source using more
descriptive than nominal characterizations. In contrast, witnesses are not
as sophisticated as governments in using characterizations to achieve their
own objectives, but merely describe the hard-bone fact that they see or
hear personally. Consequently, very few characterizations are employed in
such pure description, let alone descriptive characterizations involving
personal judgments. Last but not the least, the media are always under the
pressure of professionalism (although more often than not for the purpose
of maximum economic benefit), which requires them to provide as complete
and objective reportage as possible. The result is that the media tend to
report hard news, describe events as mere happenings, and, if not possible
to avoid extreme viewpoints, try to balance opposite views off. In the case
of covering political violence against the regime in which they operate,
nevertheless, the media can no longer stay disinterested. Patriotism
advocated by the government is a yardstick for their performance as well.
Accordingly, the media take different practices in characterizing the act
of political violence and its perpetrators. For the act, which may be
described as occurrence out there, the media elect to cover it more
objectively by using more nominal characterizations. For perpetrators, who
are viewed as the enemy of the whole nation, the media choose to show the
public and the government their own judgment (in this case, patriotism) by
employing more descriptive characterizations.
Two limitations of the study must be mentioned. First, the comparison of
the findings of the present study with Picard and Adams' study is based on
the assumption that the "911" attack, regardless of its particular target
and therefore its effect upon the U.S. media, is an example of political
violence. There exists a possibility that the changes in the three
newspapers' coverage as noted in the present study is due to the particular
nature of the "911" event itself. Second, different researchers may
perceive the categories of nominal and descriptive characterizations
differently, which results in low generalizability. Therefore, definitions
based upon scientific measurement are highly desirable for future research
on similar topics.
Apple, R.W. (1985, July 16). Thatcher urges the press to help "starve"
terrorists. New York Times, p. A3.
Atwater, T. (1987). Network evening news coverage of the TWA hostage
crisis. Journalism Quarterly 64, 520-525.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. Ballantine Books.
Berkowitz, D. (1987). TV news sources and news channels: A Study in
Agenda-Building. Journalism Quarterly 64, 508-513.
Entman, R.M (1991). Framing U.S. coverage of international news: Contrasts
in narratives of the KAL and Iran Air incidents. Journal of Communication
Entman, R.M (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm.
Journal of Communication 43, 51-58.
Epstein, E. J. (1975). Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism.
New York: Vintage Press.
Epstein, E. C. (1977). The uses of "terrorism": A study in media bias.
Stanford Journal of International Studies 12, 68-71.
Gallimore, T. (1991). Media compliance with voluntary press guidelines for
covering terrorism. In Y. Alexander and F.G. Picard (eds.), In the Camera's
Eye: News Coverage of Terrorist Events (pp.103-118). Brassey's (US), Inc.
Haller, B. (1996). Balancing acts: Disability, business, and government
sources in news coverage of disability legislation. Paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of the Association for the Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication (AEJMC), Anaheim, CA.
Harry, J.C. (2001). Covering conflict: A structural-pluralist analysis of
how a small-town and a big-city newspaper reported an environmental
controversy. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78(3), 419-436.
Herman, E.S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political
Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.
Holsti, O.R. (1969). Content Analysis for the Social Sciences and
Humanities. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
Iyengar, S. (1991). Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political
Issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Krosnick, J., & Alwin, D. (1988). A test of the form-resistant correlation
hypothesis: Ratings, rankings and the measurement of values. Public Opinion
Quarterly 52, 526-538.
Lasora, D. L., & Reese, S. D. (1990). News source use in the crash of 1987:
A study of four national media. Journalism Quarterly 67, 60-71.
Miller, A. H. (1982). Terrorism, the media, and the law: A discussion of
the issues. In Abraham H. Miller (ed.), Terrorism, the Media, and the Law.
New York: Transnational Publishers.
Paletz, D. L., Fozzard, P. A., & Ayanian, J. Z. (1982). The I.R.A., the Red
Brigades, and the F.A.L.N. in the "New York Times." Journal of
Communication 32(2), 162-171.
Picard, R.G. (1986). News coverage as the contagion of terrorism: Dangerous
charges backed by dubious science. Political Communication and Persuasion
Picard, R.G., & Adams, P.D. (1991). Characterizations of acts and
perpetrators of political violence in three elite U.S. daily newspapers. In
A. Odasuo Alali & Kenoye Kelvin Eke (eds.), Media Coverage of Terrorism:
Methods of Diffusion (pp.12-21). Newbury Park, London, New Delhi: Sage
Rothman, A. J., Salovey, P., Antone, C., Keough, K., & Martin, C. D.
(1993). The influence of message framing on intentions to perform health
behaviors. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology 29, 408-433.
Ryan, C. (1991). Media battlefronts: Political action and coverage in the
press. Social Policy 22(2), 8-15.
Ryan, J. (1991). Prime Time Activism: Media Strategies for Grassroots
Organizing. Boston: South End Press.
Ryan, J., & Sim, D.A. (1990). When art becomes news: Portrayals of art and
artists on network television news. Social Forces 68(3), 869-889.
Schlesinger, P., Murdock, G., & Elliott, P. (1983). Televising 'Terrorism':
Political Violence in Popular Culture. London: Comedia Publishing Group.
Schon, D.A., & Rein, M. (1994). Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of
Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books.
Simmons, B.K. (1991). U.S. newsmagazines' labeling of terrorists. In A.
Odasuo Alali & Kenoye Kelvin Eke (eds.), Media Coverage of Terrorism:
Methods of Diffusion (pp.23-29). Newbury Park, London, New Delhi: Sage
Simmons, B. K. & Lowry, D. N. (1990). Terrorists in the news, as reflected
in three news magazines, 1980-1988. Journalism Quarterly 67(4), 692-96.
Steuter, E. (1990). Understanding the media/terrorism relationship: An
analysis of ideology and the news in Time Magazine. Political Communication
and Persuasion 7 (4), 257-278.
Tichenor, P.J., Donohue, G.A., & Olien, C.N. (1980). Community Conflict and
the Press. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Traugott, M. W., & Brader, T. (2002). Patterns in the American news
coverage of the September 11 attacks and their consequences. Paper
presented at the Harvard Symposium. Retrieved at
Tuersky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1982). The framing of decisions and the
psychology of choice. In R. M. Hogarth (Ed.), Question Framing and Response
Consistency (pp. 3-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Weimann, G. (1985). Terrorists or freedom fighters? Labeling terrorism in
the Israeli Press. Political Communication and Persuasion 2(4), 433-445.
Weimann, G., & Winn, C. (1994). The Theater of Terror: Mass Media and
International Terrorism. New York: Longman.
Wilkinson, P. (1977). Terrorism and the Liberal State. London and
Basingstoke: MacMillan Press.
Wilson, D. K., Wallston, K. A., & King, J. E. (1990). Effect of contract
framing, motivation to quit, and self-efficacy on smoking reduction.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology 20, 531-547.
Zeng, L. (2002). Coverage of the "911" attack in elite newspapers: A
comparative study of the U.S. and the U.K. Paper presented at the Midwest
Association of Public Opinion Research (MAPOR), Chicago, IL.