The "Wave of Terror" Effect: Television News and The Politics of Fear

How the media frightens voters with the "Wave of Terror" effect

Posted Jun 13, 2010

Negativity pervades American politics.

Typically when scholars and pundits complain about the negativity of political discussion in the United States, they quickly blame candidates and politicians.  And there is good reason for blaming the candidates, as they often resort to negative attack campaigns that are designed to make voters feel anxious, threatened, and afraid. I recently wrote about an example of exactly this sort of politics in another blog post, "Threat and Anxiety --- Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work."  That blog post pointed to one example, but a great deal of the content of contemporary political campaigning is negative.

But blaming only the candidates is incorrect, because that is based on a very simplistic view of how voters receive their political information.  Criticisms of candidates for negativity assume that voters only receive their political information directly from the candidates themselves, and such criticism ignores the fact that voters also receive political information indirectly, information that is filtered through the mass media.

I wrote about the important role that the mass media plays in the process of informing voters in my first book, Information and Elections. There I showed that the amount of information disseminated by the media during a number of presidential campaigns was associated with how informed voters were about the issue positions taken by the presidential candidates.  So before we quickly blame only the candidates for negativity in political discussions, maybe we should look also at how the news media is framing and presenting the information they are passing along to voters.

New research by Shana Kushner Gadarian, recently published in the Journal of Politics, provides very important insights into how the mass media (newspaper and television coverage of political stories) can also invoke strong emotional reactions in the minds of voters. Gadarian's paper, "The Politics of Threat:  How Terrorism News Shapes Foreign Policy Attitudes," is likely to stimulate additional scholarly debate and research, because it points out how strongly negative media coverage of political stories, here about terrorism, influences voter attitudes about important issues.

Gadarian uses both survey and experimental data to show how negative media coverage of political stories influence voter attitudes.  Here's a quote from the introduction of the paper:

Using an analysis of the National Election Studies (NES) 2000–2002–2004 panel and a controlled, randomized media experiment, I demonstrate that citizens form significantly different foreign policy views when the information environment emphasizes emotion than when it is free of emotion, even when factual information is identical. Citizens concerned about terrorism are more likely to adopt the hawkish foreign policy views communicated in threatening news stories when they are matched with fear-inducing cues than when they are not. When people concerned about terrorism hear that a terrorist attack is likely and will bring fire and destruction worse than 9/11, they adopt hawkish policies. When these people actually see the fire, they react even more strongly.

Gadarian calls the threatening news story in her experimental condition the "Wave of Terror", and she matched that story with both neutral and threatening visuals.  The threatening visuals included images of the burning Twin Towers, as well as victims of the transit bombings in London.  That's why I call this the "Wave of Terror" effect. Her research shows that when a threatening news story is matched with threatening visuals, the news story itself appears to change the opinions of viewers about related issues.  

So when media elites point fingers at candidates and blames them for how negative political discourse is these days, we should all stop and remember that how these same media elites cover political stories can evoke strong negative emotional reactions in the minds of voters.   The blame for negativity in politics rests not only with candidates and political parties, but also partly with those in the news media who report on politics.