Friday, 14 February 2003

Media coverage of “terror” and third-person effects

Glenn Reynolds writes today on Howard Kurtz's observation that the media thinks we're more terrified than we actually are:

And yet, most people are going about their daily business. They have lived through so many stretches of media shrillness – abducted women, missing children, killer sharks – that it has become background noise. Repeated warnings about terrorism, and all the false alarms, have diluted their effectiveness. An orange alert becomes like a snow alert, just another fact of life.

Yes. Every time I see some anchor talk about how "frightened" and "jittery" we are, it just reminds me how out of touch Big Media people are.

We're not "jittery." Americans are determined, and angry. Spoiled media bigshots, used to living in a cocoon of bodyguards and obsequious staffers, are the ones who are "jittery." We saw this in the overwrought reaction to the anthrax attacks last year, and we're seeing it again.

The good news is that their shrillness, as Kurtz notes, actually works against the terrorists. They've managed to make terrorism boring.

The interesting question here is: What are the likely effects of this exaggeration on public opinion?

Diana Mutz and Joe Soss, in their article “Reading Public Opinion: The Influence of News Coverage on Perceptions of Public Sentiment” (Public Opinion Quarterly vol. 61 [1997]) looked at the effect of a “public journalism” effort in Madison, Wisconsin, where one local newspaper highlighted an alleged lack of affordable housing and the other didn't. While they found that the public journalism effort didn't really affect how readers perceived the issue (readers of both newspapers had approximately equal opinions about the problem), those who read the paper that emphasized the issue were more likely to think that their fellow citizens thought the issue was important. (This is termed a “third-person effect.”)

So, what does this have to do with media hysteria about terror? What it suggests is that while people won't individually feel less secure, they will feel like their communities believe they are less secure. This could lead to more widespread support for anti-terrorism measures that otherwise would exist — undermining traditional support for civil liberties by media elites. In other words, “terror exaggeration” is likely to erode public support for values that most of the media (and indeed, most Americans) find desirable: freedom of expression and association and the right to privacy.