AUDIENCE RESPONSES TO MEDIATED TERROR:
TV COVERAGE OF THE OTTAWA INCIDENT
By Allen W. Palmer, Ph.D.
Department of Communications
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
[log in to unmask]
Media and Society Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
AUDIENCE RESPONSES TO MEDIATED TERROR:
TV COVERAGE OF THE OTTAWA INCIDENT
Broadcast news reports of a hostage incident in Ottawa, Canada, are used in
this experimental study to explore the question of how a media audience makes
sense of mediated terrorism. The deliberate engagement of the news media by a
terrorist nominally suggests control (top-down) of the construction of social
meaning. Yet, meaning is sometimes seen as audience-centered as individuals draw
upon idiosyncratic knowledge to make sense of news reports. Subjects (N-175)
watched video reports of a hostage incident and then recorded responses. Some
respondents focused on their own emotions; others were sympathetic to the
hostage or angry at the intruder. A few expressed concern for the victim,
disgust at bystanders and/or impatience with the slow pace of live action.
Responses of this audience resist categorical explanation and suggest the
diversity of audience responses to mediated terrorism.
AUDIENCE RESPONSES TO MEDIATED TERROR:
TV COVERAGE OF THE OTTAWA INCIDENT
An armed man entered the Bahamian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, on April 1, 1986.
Using threats of violence, he subdued an embassy officer and telephoned the
newsroom at CJOH-TV and said: "You...are the only ones being told this. I'm
holding vice-consul of the Bahamian Embassy, the High Commission of the Bahamas,
hostage. Within minutes, a broadcast announcer came on the air with a news
News anchor: "We have word of a hostage-taking at the Bahamian High
Commissioner's offices on Kent Street in downtown Ottawa. Police, who have been
alerted by a phone call to the CJOH newsroom are converging on the scene. Our
news crews are there...." (See Appendix).
The incident occurred just prior to the early evening newscast which
subsequently was devoted to reports about the event. The news media were drawn
into the situation because the episode met general guidelines for coverage of an
important breaking news story. The exclusive nature of the telephone contact
undoubtedly enhanced interest in the event for CJOH-TV. The event also occurred
at a critical time for news decisions at the station, just prior to a regular
The Ottawa incident also was destined to receive wide public attention because
it occurred at an international diplomatic mission in a major North American
city at a time when public concern over international terrorism was high and
incidents were frequent. While the total number of international terrorism
incidents have decreased in the 1990s, terrorist problems generally continue to
attract considerable attention because of increased security measures at
international events, such as the Olympic Games. Public interest has been high
also because of the prosecutions of those involved in major terrorist events:
the World Trade Center bombing, for which Ramzi Yousef was convicted in November
1997; the slaying of two CIA employees, for which Mir Aimal Kansi was convicted
in November 1997; and Timothy McVeigh's conviction in June 1997 for the Oklahoma
City federal building bombing that killed 167 people. The unresolved bombing of
Pan Am Flight 193 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has also lingered in news headlines
in Europe and North America.
Figure 1: International Terrorist Incidents Over Time, 1977-96
(Source: Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of
The implementation of 25 counter-terrorist measures through international
police agencies, announced on December 11, 1997, suggests a comprehensive effort
to control the activities of international terrorists. Yet, none of the 25
measures, even those ostensibly aimed at "information exchange," deals with the
role of the news media in such events.
Because the journalists at CJOH-TV quickly identified the hostage incident at
the Bahamian Embassy as another in a series of recent "international terrorist"
incidents in the Canadian capital, it was taken at face value as representative
of such events.
It is the unusually deliberate engagement of the media which occurred in this
incident and its frame as "international terrorism" which direct our interest to
this account. While international terrorism is not always so media-direct, the
Ottawa incident affords an opportunity to examine construction of public
understanding of terrorism in the context of news media involvement.
Terrorism as Communication
Terrorism is often described as a form of communication and the mass media are
implicated, and culpable, in its dissemination, but it is not immediately clear
what such a conception means. Mass communication can be thought of as an
interpretative process in which meaning is created by message receivers and not
imposed on them by producers. People live in the semantic space they create, in
meanings they are able to discern individually. They extend themselves into that
which they find coherent and are at home there (Polyani & Prosch, 1977). The
mass media, then, may be better seen as one point in the construction or
political and social meanings, perhaps an important point, but certainly not the
On such a premise, we should reconsider the common explanation offered by a
variety of media critics and others concerning how the news media re implicated
in terrorism. On its face, the deliberate use of the mass media by political
actors affirms the power of a top-down model: the imposition of meaning--fear
and anxiety--on members of the audience. In research on mass media effects, it
was long presumed the text precedes the reader, but a conceptual shift in the
dominant mass communication model moves the point of control toward negotiated
meaning (Liebes & Ribak, 1991), or the active reader, a bottom-up model, in
which individuals create their own meanings based on the relevance of textual
cues (Morley, 1986).
It has not been clearly established that terror is the inevitable produce of
the terrorist act, in spite of widespread assumptions of the nominalism of
violence (Lowery & DeFleur, 1988). The problem is located more generally in how
the public understands media texts as a cultural practice. Insights from Michel
de Certeau (1984) show how the conception of "public" is usually not explicit in
studies of public discourse, but implies an image of passive consumers grazing
on the meanings offered through the mass media. The media as producers often
claim to inform the public directly, and critical often assume that the public
is directly influenced by the texts imposed. However, as de Certeau (1984)
The efficiency of production implies the inertia of consumption.
It produces the ideology of consumption-as-a-receptacle. The result of
class ideology and technical blindness, this legend is necessary for
the system that distinguishes and privileges authors, educators,
revolutionaries, in a word, "producers," in contrast with those who do
not produce. By challenging "consumption" as it is conceived and (of
course) confirmed by these "authorial" enterprises, we may be able to
discover creative activity where it has been denied that any exists....
It is wrong, then, to assume that "To write is to produce the text; to read is
to receive it from someone else without putting one's own mark on it, without
remaking it" (de Certeau, 1984: 171). The actual source of meaning has less to
do perhaps with the authorial intent and action than the social experience that
over determine our relation to the text (Fiske, 1988; Steiner, 1988).
Terrorists engage, intentionally or not, a strategy of dominance as a tactic of
subordinance. The ultimate power over meaning, however, may rest neither in
ideological dominance nor anarchic threat; it may be held instead by individuals
in the media audience who make idiosyncratic sense of these events on their own
Some Audience Implications of Bottom-Up Processes
The concept of audience is heavily implicated in this search for the centers
and moments of meaning around political violence. Audience theory offers few
insights into the social construction of mediated meaning. A review by Ralph
Lowenstein and John Merrill (1990) found mass audiences to be amorphous,
transitory and fickle. These audiences constantly pose mysteries for mass
communicators and their real nature is virtually unknown.
Influenced by a linear model of communication, much of the current literature
of terrorism offers an ultra rational perspective of the linkage between
perpetrator, text and audience. Analysts have always credited terrorists with
particularly devious and effective media manipulation; their acts are endowed
with literal, unambiguous meaning; and the audience with nearly cosmic powers to
perceive and understand these meanings. Terrorists themselves are presumed to
play on the irrationality of the commercial mass media system which must balance
responsible accounts of reality and maintain a large commercial audience; and
the gullibility of the mass audience itself which is all-too-ready to accept the
cult of terror.
Because government policy-makers consider terrorism to be a significant threat
to the openness of liberal democracy, they define terrorism in terms of the
presumed sinister purpose and intent of perpetrators. L. Paul Bremer, former
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counter-Terrorism, asserted: "Their [terrorists]
goal is to terrorist citizens in an apparently random way, so that people might
lose confidence in their governments" (Bremer, 1987). Such statements may
overestimate the capacity of terrorists to achieve clandestine purposes.
Despite many contradictory claims, researchers now suspect many of the
political actors formerly called "terrorists" actually have much less
sophistication. A 1987 RAND study argued that while terrorism is often described
as a form of communication, terrorists are rather poor communicators:
The message carried by terrorist violence is not always heard or
understood as the terrorists would like it to be. For example, while
terrorists would prefer a particular bombing to convey to the audience
a message of "solidarity" with the oppressed peoples of the Third
World," the audience may simply read "mayhem and destruction." (Cordes,
While insurgent violence might be characterized as purposeful and intentional,
much of the communication literature minimizes the possibility of bottom-up
processing by audiences. Message producers are privileged as controllers of
Knowledge cannot be entirely idiosyncratic, nor is it completely shared. From a
common language and culture, individuals bring to news a historicized
understanding, directed and constrained by both individual interests and social
knowledge. These have been described by Herbert Gans (1979) as "paraideology," a
jumble of values and reality judgments. From these origins, individuals
interpret selectively whatever might be salient when cued by media
narratives.While media carry messages of society's dominant values and of
specific facts in the information environment fitted to those values, cognitive
processes involve operations through which this information is acquired,
transformed, stored and utilized (Greense, 1988).
Sense-making is also constrained by cultural influence of ideology, which has
been defined as combined affect and symbolization rather than issue coherence
(Conover & Feldman, 1981). Some people make sense of news topics and issues as
"condensation symbols" or abstractions of an assortment of conflicting
interests. Such abstractions may come together in a narrow focus over a specific
public issue. Some issues are seen clearly in the abstract by a relatively few
individuals, felt simply as discomfort by others, and are ignored or unknown to
still others. An individual's position on specific social and political problems
probably fits with personal positions on broad social questions and presumptions
of human nature in general (Wilson, 1946).
A Danish study found multi-dimensional "super-themes" which seem to emerge in
personal interpretation of TV news (Jensen, 1988). These themes are evidence of
the cognitive linkage between the narratives in news stories and everyday
experience. Super-themes are the product of interpretive processes which are
employed for reconstruction of meaning, mediated between a social event in the
news and the viewer's everyday experience. Super-themes are not necessarily
characteristic of the structure of news from the journalist's perspective, but
are more characteristic of reception. Further, such themes constitute meaning
potential which is actualized in later discussion about the news, and it is in
subsequent news-talk that those meanings become accessible for tracking and
Others have suggested salience of news is identified through schemata (Graber,
1988) or enhanced by perspectives of religious and social class
background, family occupations, political party and education orientations
To the degree that individual meanings given to news are idiosyncratic,
discrepancy may be recognized between personal and public knowledge. Such
discrepancies may give rise to media criticism. As Graber suggested: "Life
experiences permit most respondents to put the bulk of stories into a fairly
realistic focus or, at least, to recognize that media images are often
distorted" (Graber, 1988: 92). She suggests individual engage a variety of
cognitive adjustments to make sense of news stories. These might include filling
in details, perspectives and interpretations based on past learning and
experience, accepting the information but labeling it as incomplete and
reserving judgment; or rejecting the story as unreliable. In sum, individuals
who receive news may well be cognizant that the media distort reality at some
level and make cognitive corrections as necessary to adjust for such
Others have approached these questions with alternative constructs. For
instance, two level of information motivation have been described as
"transituational" and "situation-specific" (Sigelman & Yanarella, 1986). In this
framework, knowledge is motivated by basic social and demographic attributes,
influences heavily by education. This source of motivation is transsituational:
the information is held minimally as background knowledge by virtue of culture,
citizenship or other general interest. Second, motivation to acquire information
can be situation-specific: relevant to one's particular position and
self-interests. While a particular news message can achieve high relevance to
any individual, most messages are transsituational and held as background
knowledge unless and until their salience is raised (Pierce, et al., 1988).
Several research efforts have sought to explain the selectivity processes which
propel particular people or issues into the public eye, and suppress others. For
example, according to Buck (1988) the relevance of African famine distress may
have been raised in the developed world through an emotional coefficient
available uniquely through visual communication (e.g. photographs and TV). The
emotional dimension of audience response is an important, but largely unexplored
area of media theory.
Audience response to political violence is difficult to isolate because: (1)
each event occurs in a specific political and social context not frozen in time;
(2) individuals in the audience may differ along a variety of psycho-social
dimensions, not the least of which are subject-specific traits, or relatively
enduring personality difference; and (3) responses to terrorist acts may vary
along a wide spectrum of cognitive and affective dimensions, not entirely
subject to empirical examination. To the degree that these meanings are
empirically verifiable, they provide answers to the questions of how audiences
response to political violence.
A concept impliated in how deeply the news is engaged is message involvement,
defined as attention to cetral message characteristics. It has been approached
as a dimension of audience activity that shows intellectual or emotiona
participation in messages. One research found linkage between cognitive and
emotional involvement with TV news when examining the relationships of
news-viewing motivations and media involvement (Perse, 1990). Utilitarian-view
motives were associated with higher cognitive involvement and feelings of anger;
diversionary motivation was associatead with feeling happy while watching TV
news. Similarly, Petty & Cacioppo (1986) found greater message involvement was
associated with more attention to central message characteristics, but lesser
involvement was correlated with greater attention to incident characteristics,
such as source attractiveness, presentational style, etc.
How individuals pay attention to news, especially TV news, has been dealt with
previously (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986). There are theoretical reasons why
message involvement might vary according to news media studied. This question
will not be addressed here. The presumed advantage of TV over print media is its
combined multi-sensory appeal. A visual dimension may add to overall
believeability, but an individual viewer has less control over broadcast message
flow than for print media. Loss of viewer control may create a sense of
dependency on the medium for narrative direction and turns. The TV-viewer
interaction contains a rate-of-flow limit outside the individual, the effect of
which is to produce "free time" or extra mental capacity, which should then be
available either for going more deeply into the primary task, or for taking on
secondary tasks (Hawkins & Daly, 1988). If extra cognitive capacity results from
the controlled pacing of broadcast news, individuals should have both the
opportunity and interaction dynamics to use cognitive skills for generating
surplus meaning, making interpretive linkages between personal knowledge and
news media reports.
In another study, however, Graber (1990) found while visual themes were more
memorable than verbal ones, there was little evidence exactly how the visual
element of TV was helpful, useless or harmful in terms of overall understanding.
Still, there was evidence how the news portrays terrorists makes adifference to
audiences. Gabriel Weimann (1987), for example, showed that altered press
reports of terrorist activity redefined the image of the terrorists for the
mediated audience. These findings should be integrated into a comprehensive
effort to advance understanding of how the public understands news of political
violence and terrorism in news reports.
Considerable effort has focused on the development of theory to account for
various dimensions of fear and anxiety. Beck and Rush (1975) described fear as a
particular kind of ideation involving the potnetial future consequences of an
unpleasant event; anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state. Numerous studies
have experimentally induced stressful conditions to investigate the consequences
of anxiety (Spielberger, 1975). Other studies have examined coping responses to
otherwise natually-occuring events. For instance, Levy and Guttman (1982)
examined the relationship of worry, fear, concern and coping among Israelis
following the Yom Kippur War.
Spielberger (1966) advanced a state-trait anxiety theory that suggested a
person who perceives a particular situation as physically threatening will
respond to it with an elevation in reactive or state anxiety irrespective of any
personal trait anxiety. He defined state anxiety as "subjective, consciously
perceived feelings of tension, apprehension and nervousness..." (Spielberger,
While the nature of anxiety and its relationship to other mental constructs,
such as learning and memory, are complex, in general the intensity and duration
of anxiety will be determined by the amount of threat that individuals attribute
to the situation, and by the persistance of their appraisal of the situation as
threatening (Gaudry, 1977).
Spielberger 1972) cautioned that the anxiety process is extremely complex and
involves multiple components. "To use the term anxiety to refer to the entire
process attempts to incoprate too much within a single concept" (489). He
suggested the development of a comprehensive theory to account for anxiety
phenomena should begin with definition of response characteristics of anxiety
To move the conceptualization of audience construction of meaning toward an
"active audience," this research was directed at the nature of audience response
to news of international terrorism. Two questions explored were: (1) Is terror
the inevitable product of news stories about terrorism? and (2) Is the response
of individual audience members to terrorist news idiosyncratic or systematic?
A mixed research design, experimental and qualitative, was employed to explore
audience responses to the Ottawa hostage incident. Subjects who participated in
the study were 93 men and 82 women (N=175) at two community colleges and a
university in the Western United States. Subjects were students six separate
undergraduate liberal arts courses.
Subjects were shown a 15-minute video showing news reports of the incident at
the Bahamian Embassy. The video was divided into four segments:
Part 1: The first segment consisted of an introduction by a news anchor ("It
has been an incredibly tense evening....) with a stand-up report by a reporter
on the street outside the Bahamian Embassy and an audio recording of the initial
conversations between the TV reporter and the hostage-taker (time: 5:08).
Part 2: The second segment included a tape-recorded report framing the hostage
incident as part of a series of "international terrorism" incidents in Ottawa,
showing several scenes of police activity at the Turkish Embassy, an airport and
a murder scene involving a diplomat, followed by a live update on the hostage
standoff at the Bahamian Embassy (time: 4:35).
Part 3: A mid-morning report on the second day of the hostage incident,
reporting the release of the hostage and the arrest of the hostage-taker. The
anchor interviewed two news reporters who followed the events during the night
Part 4: A "commentary" segment by the CJOH-TV managing editor, raising
questions about the importance of community safety and public information during
the hostage incident. He praised both police and news reporters who handled the
situation well (time: 1:15).
Two experimental instruments were employed to examine individual subject
responses to the Ottawa news reports: (1) a thought-listing technique providing
open-ended responses to the news report; and (2) a short version of STAI to
measure "state anxiety" The thought-listing procedure taps into anxiety levels
through cognitive processes (Leary, 1988). The STAI anxiety scale (Spielberger,
Gorsuch & Lushene, 1970) has shown reliability (.86 to .93) and validity in
general anxiety research (Beatty, et al., 1991; Leherissey, et al., 1973;
O'Neil, et al., 1969). The 5-item short form STAI has the advantage of being
relatively unobtrusive which was considered important in a repeated measures
experimental design. Subjects responses were also recorded on a 7-point
First, subjects wrote open-ended responses on paper. The paper response forms
contained five 5-in. lines, modifying a procedure developed by Brock (1967);
Greenwald (1968); Cacioppo & Petty (1981); and Davison, Robins & Johnson (1983).
Subjects were introduced to the experiment as "a study investigating how people
understand TV news." they were told the study dealt with "the kinds of things
you think" which watching TV news. They completed a questionnaire asking for
demographic information, and were instructed to watch a taped TV news report.
They were asked to focus on their thoughts and feelings while watching the news
and to record their thoughts on paper during pauses between tape segments.
To enhance the realism of a video-taped report, subjects were instructed to
ignore insofar as possible the time and place of the event, and to watch it in
"real time," that is, to assume it was happening "here and now." Further,
subjects were told to ignore matters of spelling, grammar, and punctuation; to
record their thoughts as honestly and frankly as possible. This procedure
allowed subjects to "get into" simulated conditions reasonably well and report
their thoughts in a written form, even though under experimental conditions.
In a 2-3 minute interval between the four video-taped segments, subjects
completed the STAI 5-item questionnaire. A review by two pilot test groups
showed the 5-item STAI tailed to tap at least three relevant emotional
dimensions evoked by the news report: fear, sadness and anger. Three additional
single-items were added to the instrument to tap into these emotions. A
factor analysis with principal axis factoring of the 8-item anxiety instrument
showed all 8 items loaded acceptably on the first factor (see Table 1).
Factor Analysis of 8-Item Anxiety Scale
Factor 1 Factor 2
1. Relaxed* .90 -.31
2. Calm* .86 -.11
3. Ease* .86 -.23
4. Tense .84 .10
6. Jittery .70
7. Angry .45 .11
8. Sad .44 .51
Eigenvalue 4.49 .49
Var. Explained 56.20% 6.10%
The responses obtained from subjects provided a rich source of information
about subjects' cognitive and affective reaction to terrorism in the news media
of the Ottawa incident. A representative selection of comments follows.
Some of the subjects who viewed the news reports associated the
hostage-incident with personal experience, or familiar incidents, some referring
to recent events involving political violence.
Others reported generalizing broadly in affective or emotional meanings: "Why
is the world like this?" "People do not care anymore," and "There isn't much
that can be done and it's maddening." Others defined the problems in terms of
the desirability of a cooperative solution: "This is an international problem
that needs a joint effort, such as the UN."
The open-ended responses from subjects included many focusing on their own
emotional responses: "...watching it took away my breath," "It stunned me..."
and "I felt queasy...my heart started racing." One subject expressed her
reaction as: "There's a lot of tension.... I got very involved in the
Numerous subjects expressed concern about the welfare of the hostage, but
perhaps not as many as might have been expected: "I feel sorry for the hostage,
that she's in this situation," said one subject. Others focused on the
hostage-taker: "If he killed her, then he should die, too"; "It's horrible that
someone can be so evil to do something like that," and "I hope they get into the
mind of this guy and help him"; and "I wonder what it takes for a man to dare to
threaten the life of another. To me it seems so strange." Others struggled with
their own kinds of meanings: "It's hard for me to explain [such events] to my
little children at home."
There were some subjects who clearly challenged the news reports on the grounds
of bias, counter productivity or danger. Two parts of the TV report were
particularly criticized by some subjects. In the first, several onlookers
standing on a nearby street were shown laughing while watching the incident; and
the second showed a reporter commenting on the carnival-like atmosphere in the
crowd of onlookers. The reporter also referred to a nearby pizza shop that
remained open unusually late into the night to accommodate hungry bystanders:
"[the reporters] drank beer and ate pizza all night...its not good for the
public to hear that," commented one subject.
Others recognized a sense of danger, but admitted they found themselves hoping
to see more action or violence. These conflicting expressions revealed a
particular sense of ambivalence about anticipating the outcome of the incident.
"People's misfortunes are interesting to others," remarked one subject. Others
offered: [It] is terrifying to watch, but I do want to know what is going on."
Another subject expressed an odd disappointment: "I am happy that it ended
peacefully, but I wish that something would have happened."
At least two subjects said independently that the news report reminded them of
violent scenes from the Hollywood movie "Die Hard," but the news was somehow
less entertaining than the movie.
At several points in the news report, the incident was described by reporters
as a "real-life drama" or "life-and-death drama." Some adopted the newscasters'
terminology in their responses: "[It] makes me feel better to know they are able
to finish such a drama with success," and "I think people hanging around to see
a real-life drama are stupid."
No subject comments employed the term "terrorism" directly, until after it was
introduced into the news script by reporters in the second video-taped news
segment: "I'm confused why people have to resort to terrorism"; "It's
frightening that terrorism would happen in front of me"; and "It makes one
realize terrorism can strike anywhere."
Of note were numerous comments from subjects critical of the news reporting
and/or reporters. One subject said: "The news [reporters] are downplaying how
dangerous this situation is." Another said: "The TV station is telling the
[intruder] too much information...he is probably watching this station [on TV]
since he called one of their reporters."
Yet, not every subject found the hostage news report compelling. Several
subjects reported they were only marginally interested in what was happening:
"The hostage situation seemed a little comical." Another responded with
detachment: "I would have changed channels, maybe looked for something
Several approaches were considered in analysis of subject responses to identify
themes or categories of responses to the news reports of the incident:
1. The data were subjected to levels of discourse analysis (Smith, 1988):
description, inference, interpretation, criticism and evaluation. It was
determined that the subject's remarks were often mixed and continuous, rather
than discrete, making categorization problematic. Relatively few subjects
responded with simple descriptive statements; other comments could not be
distinguished as either inference or interpretation, criticism or evaluation.
2. Critical responses were categorized into four levels of media criticism
(Morley, 1985; Hacker, et al., 1991): (a) criticism, (b) resistance, (c)
challenge, and (d) deconstruction. While the open-ended remarks provided
adequate breadth, they did not provide sufficient depth to adequately apply
3. Further examination of subjects' responses using a grounded theory approach
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967) sought to identify natural or emergent categories in
the data. One category which was identified was based on "origin" or remarks.
Under Greenwald's (1968) scheme for coding externally-oriented cognitive
thoughts, the responses to the news were classified into: (a) responses clearly
directed at the news event, (b) those clearly directly at the news media
reporting, and (c) all other responses, including those with mixed or unclear
origins of subject focus and interest (see Table 2). Ten percent of the
responses were coded by trained research assistants to establish intercoder
Origin of Subject Responses
Group: N Percent
A. News coverage 24 14
B. Hostage events 102 58
C. All others 49 28
Group means were calculated for anxiety for all subjects combined. These
followed the trends of anxiety expressed across all four videotape news segments
(see Table 3 and Figure 2). The initial report contained in the first video
segment produced an anxiety mean score of 4.048.
Overall Anxiety Scores
1 2 3 4
Mean* 4.048 4.242 3.126 2.811
S.D. 1.369 1.361 .633 1.258
*MANOVA (repeated measures): SS=271.13, d.f.=3, F=143.81, p<.001
Anxiety Mean Scores For All Subjects
While there was relatively little visual information depicting graphic violence
and the TV story script did not refer to "terrorism" in the first tape segment,
there was clearly a moderate level of anxiety evident in subject responses.
The second segment more clearly framed the hostage incident as an example of
"international terrorism," reviewing prior events of violence in the same
locale, and produced an increased anxiety level (4.448). The audience responded
to the news references to terrorism and/or graphic visual images.
The third segment presented a peaceful resolution to the incident which was
reflected in a decrease (3.126) in the anxiety mean. The segment portrayed the
release of the hostage, arrest of the hostage-taker and statements from police
about charges soon to be filed. In sum, the news segment offered an opportunity
for the audience to witness a satisfactory resolution to the events and many
subjects expressed a discernible sense of relief.
Finally, the last tapped segment showed a further release of anxiety level
(2.811) during the short commentary by the managing editor, commenting about the
hostage incident, suggesting the meta-analysis served to further reduce audience
When comparison were drawn between media-oriented viewers (N=24) and
event-oriented viewers (N=102), significant differences were found in anxiety
means between the first two news segments. (Part 1: t=2.03, d.f. 124, 2-tailed,
p<.05; Part 2: t=2.00, p<.05). See Figure 3 and Table 4.
Anxiety Scores Compared by Response Origin
1 2 3 4
Group: A B A B A B A B
Mean: 3.571 4.250* 3.800 4.448* 2.962 3.160 2.533 2.811
S.D. 1.280 1.417 1.368 1.348 .731 .641 1.273 1.190
Anxiety Mean Scores by Message Group
Repeated Measures Anxiety Text
Because the experiment involved a one-factor, repeated-measures design, a
multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was applied to test the overall
effect of the 4 different taped segments on audience anxiety scores. The
repeated-measure design permits the anxiety effect to be assessed separately
from individual differences among subjects.
The main effect for anxiety was significant (p<.001). The separate news reports
produced marked differences in levels of anxiety for subjects in the experiment.
The reliability of the eight-item scale was acceptable (alpha = .89, .89, .59,
.86) for each of the four tapped segments.
Summary and Conclusion
These findings support the general claim that there is "creative activity"
among individuals in the mass audience where it has been assumed that little
exists. While such a conclusion is intuitively obvious, there is little previous
research to describe such divergent audience responses to mediated terrorism. To
the contrary, critics who implicate the news media in terrorism, and perhaps the
terrorists themselves, minimize the power of audience interpretation of media
There is evidence here of resistance among audience members to interpret
mediated terrorism in terms of fear or anxiety, although that is the obvious
preferred reading. While part of the audience expressed significantly higher
anxiety at the media depiction of "international terrorism," there are other
audience members who simply to do response in such semantics.
The most disturbing finding of this study is the audience's simultaneous
expression of concern for the victim's safety, and the contradictory desire to
see more violence. From a functional perspective, this contradiction suggests an
overlap or a blurring of surveillance and entertainment. Or, perhaps the
audience has difficulty distinguishing between the realism of news and the
fantasy of drama. The repetition of the term "real-life drama" by the TV
reporters suggests these genres do become confused.
A more relevant audience response is anger, but anger expressed by these
subjects seemed to be direct as much as news reporters as it was at the
terrorist. It is, however, clear that many policy agencies underestimate the
intelligence and creativity of the public to resist terrorism in deciphering
The more general, and complex, question is whether the responses of individual
audience members to such news reports is idiosyncratic or systematic. There were
important and subtle differences in the reactions of individual audience
members, which is partly explained by the ambiguity of perception. While there
are traces of evidence of shared meaning, except for an orientation of
relatively few critical subjects, there was no conclusive evidence of a
systematic response to terrorism news. A fundamental difference in audience
orientation, either toward the hostage event or the media coverage, suggests
part of the audience sees, and is critical of the news media's construction of
this kind of meaning. The antecedents of such disposition are not clear here.
Further analysis may yet reveal the lines along which an aggregate audience
responses, or discounts, such media reports.
Indeed, many individuals in the audience expressed some increased anxiety over
seeing the news accounts; anxiety was higher for those who showed evidence of
higher message involvement in the event per se. Those who were oriented to the
event itself generally saw through the media transparently and focused instead
on the hostage drama and its actors.
In summary, these findings suggest further research is possible about how
individuals engage, or gloss, other kinds of news. The claim has been made by
some media critics that the news media carry a large part of the responsibility
for social apathy, a passive electorate, and public detachment from communitas.
Perhaps message involvement is a key theoretical construct in understanding
these perplexing issues.
CJOH-TV news report transcript:
News anchor: We have word of a hostage-taking at the Bahamian High
Commissioner's offices on Kent Street in downtown Ottawa. Police, who have been
alerted by a phone call to the CJOH newsroom are converging on the scene. Our
news crews are there. Assignment editor Brian Goff, perhaps you could sketch in
the details from the last 15 minutes.
Assignment editor: It began with a phone call--just a man of the other end of
the phone saying, "You and radio station CHEZ are the only ones being told this.
I'm holding the vice-consul of the Bahamian Embassy, the High Commission of the
Bahamas, hostage." Charlie Greenwell, from our newsroom, phone [him] back, just
to confirm both the [phone] number and the incident, and here is the phone
conversation with the man who claims he is the hostage taker.
News reporter: What exactly are you seeking?
Subject: I am seeking the turnover of the fire hall in Ottawa...to the foreign
media of this city forthwith. I want the announcement made within two hours. I
want Timothy Edward Engan released from Kingston [Ontario] Penitentiary, brought
here, and then transported to an isolated area in northern Canada. At that
point, we will return the consul. That's what I want.
Reporter: Do you have the consul there?
Subject: I have the consul right here. Believe me, I do.
Reporter: And are you armed?
Subject: I most certainly am.
Reporter: Armed with what?
Subject: I am armed with a revolver a bomb, and I am armed with a vial of
hydrochloric acid and a collection of knives.
Reporter: Could you put the consul on the phone please.
Subject: Yes. Make your questions short.
Reporter: Is this man armed?
Hostage: Yes, he is. He has a revolver.
Reporter: What time did he enter the premises?
Hostage: He came in originally about 4:30.
Reporter: You are on your own in there?
Hostage: Yes I am. He came in under the pretense that he was a courier.
Assignment editor: That woman identified herself as Janet Roming, and she is
the vice consul to the High Commission of the Bahamas.
Anchor: Brian, do we have any idea who the so-called hostage-taker may be?
Assignment editor: No, we don't. I asked him three times and Charlie asked him
twice. In each case, he hung up the phone and we had to phone him back.
Anchor: Michael O'Bryrne is one of the news reporters standing by. Michael, you
are on Kent Street. What's the situation there...?
The incident ended about eight hours later when the man surrendered to police.
He was charged, tried in court and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role
in the incident (Scanlon, 1986: 98-100).
 Contact with the intruder at the Bahamian Embassy was first made by CJOH-TV
news reporter Charles Greenwell. Greenwell told the researcher that he minimized
the problem at first because the caller seemed to have personal and emotional
problems. The intruder told Greenwell he contacted the news media because he did
not trust police, not necessarily because of a deliberate plan to implicate the
news media. Greenwell gave the caller a name of someone "to be trusted" at the
police office and also conveyed information about the man and his phone number
directly to police officers, but neither Greenwell did not contact the police
 See "Implementation of the 25 Recommendations from the Paris Ministerial," a
fact sheet released by the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S.
Department of State, Dec. 11, 1997
 While the hostage incident was "international" and had the stamp of
"terrorism," it probably did not match key criteria to be considered as
international terrorism. While the demands initially seemed to be political, the
instigator may have entered the embassy office uncertain where he was located.
As he was taken away by police the following morning, he shouted to reporters:
"What this has all been about primarily are kids who have nothing, who have no
opportunity. I spent my life growing up in a foster home. The man I asked to be
released from Kingston [prison] is in the same boat. If society can't care about
the kids, it can't care about anything." (Ottawa Citizen, April 1, 1986: 1).
 _Many acts of politically-motivated violence result in no clear claim of
purpose or responsibility, raising unanswered questiona about the intentions and
strategies of terrorist perpetrators.
 There is a curious itony in de Certeau's use of metaphors to depict the
semiotic processes of "grazing" and "poaching" as hostile semiotic acts. He saw
the strategies of bottom-up processes of social construction as a kind of
semiotic guerrilla warfare that involved harassing and sabotaging the dominant
 While single-item scales are considered insufficient to adequately explore a
construct, the three questions were employed to explore the possibility of
multi-dimensional responses of individuals to the news report.
 At least 64 percent of the subjects reported they read a major newspaper at
least 2 times each week; 11 percent said they read a major newspaper every day.
About 85 percent reported seeing a TV news program at least 2 times each week;
20 percent reported watching TV news every day.
 Among the subjects who responses were those (N-22) who responded on the
preliminary questionnaire that they had been victims personally of violent
crime, ranging from rape, robbery to assault; one had been in Munich, Germany
during the 1972 Olympics and reported strong emotional responses while watching
the Ottawa TV news report.
 Analysis of ATAI reliability in part 3 (.59) revealed weakness in one
instrument question: "Were you relaxed?" Eliminating the question raised the
alpha to .88.