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Journal of International and

Intercultural Communication
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Media Framing of Terrorism:

Implications for Public Opinion, Civil
Liberties, and Counterterrorism
Mary E. Brinson & Michael Stohl
Published online: 06 Aug 2012.

To cite this article: Mary E. Brinson & Michael Stohl (2012) Media Framing of Terrorism:
Implications for Public Opinion, Civil Liberties, and Counterterrorism Policies, Journal of
International and Intercultural Communication, 5:4, 270-290, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2012.713973
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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication

Vol. 5, No. 4, November 2012, pp. 270290

Media Framing of Terrorism:

Implications for Public Opinion,
Civil Liberties, and Counterterrorism
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Mary E. Brinson & Michael Stohl

This study presents experimental findings on the impact of media framing of the 2005
London bombings. A total of 371 American participants were exposed to one of two
frames to test their effect on public attitudes towards civil liberties and Muslims, and
support for counterterrorism policies. Results show that the domestic homegrown
frame produces greater increases in fear than the international frame. This leads to
greater support for restricting civil liberties of Muslims and, under certain circumstances,
general feelings of negativity toward Muslims. The study also finds support for the
hydraulic effect of framing in that the domestic homegrown frame suppresses party
identification in attitude formation.
Keywords: Media Framing; Civil Liberties; Terrorism; Public Opinion; Political Attitude
On July 7, 2005, a series of three coordinated blasts hit Londons subways during the
morning rush hour. Less than an hour later, a fourth bomb exploded on a bus in
Tavistock Square. Fifty-two commuters and the four suicide bombers were killed in
the attacks, and more than 700 people were injured. In addition to the shock and loss
of lives, media coverage of these explosions had a significant impact on public
perceptions of the threat of terrorism. Shortly after this deadly day, the concepts of
homegrown terrorism and radicalization were (re-)invented and ascribed to
Islamic terrorism, with repercussions for civil liberties, racial, ethnic and religious
attitudes, and government policy.

Mary E. Brinson is at University of San Diego. Michael Stohl is at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Correspondence to: Mary E. Brinson, Communication Studies, Camino Hall 126, University of San Diego,
5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, USA. Email:
ISSN 1751-3057 (print)/ISSN 1751-3065 (online) # 2012 National Communication Association

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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


Prior to July 2005, the Islamic terrorist threat in the United States and United
Kingdom was conceived as originating from terrorist organizations based outside the
two countries (Crone & Harrow, 2010). These earlier perceptions of Islamic terrorism
as an external threat, and the perceptions subsequent to the London subway
bombings, were influenced by media presentations, or media frames,. These frames
form the narrative structure through which newsmakers produce, organize, and
explain events or issues. In their framing and interpretation of events, the media
define problems*determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and
benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; diagnose causes*
identify the forces creating the problem; make more judgments*evaluate causal
agents and their effects; and suggest remedies*offer and justify treatments for the
problems and predict their likely effects (Entman, 2003, p. 52).
The current study builds on Brinson and Stohls (2010) examination of the U.S.
and U.K. press coverage of the 2005 London terror attacks. We identified two
competing frames. The first, the domestic frame, defined and diagnosed the
problem as homegrown. The second, the international frame, defined and
diagnosed the problem as being connected to international terrorist organizations.
Here, we employ an experimental design to examine the effects of these two media
frames on individuals understanding and reactions to terrorist events. Given the
focus on Islamic terrorists after 9/11 and then again after 7/7, we investigate how
media coverage influences attitudes towards Muslims, perceptions of fear, and the
willingness of citizens to curtail their own civil liberties (such as restrictions on
access to information that the government deems confidential, or government
monitoring of credit cards) as well as those of others (such as racial profiling,
investigating protestors and the detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects) as part
of counterterrorism policies. The frames were tested on American respondents,
which, as argued below, should strengthen the findings, since their distance from
the immediate geographic proximity of the attacks should lessen the effects of fear,
emotion or identification with the symbols of the attacks that British participants
might experience. We find that the domestic or homegrown terror frame,
combined with increased fear of future attacks, has the more powerful impact
on support for civil liberties restrictions. We also find that higher levels of fear can
suppress an individuals reliance on ideological predispositions in making such
To better contextualize this study, we first discuss Brinson and Stohls (2010)
identification of the media frames employed to report the 2005 London bombings.
Next, we survey scholarship regarding the impact of media framing on attitudes
related to identity-based policies. We then explore how the ability of media frames to
reinforce or challenge existing viewpoints is dependent upon how the audience
evaluates the incoming media frame. Finally, we investigate how fear, through the
hydraulic effect (Price, Tewksbury & Powers, 1997) acts to drive out other possible

272 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

Frames, Processes, and Effects

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Competing Frames
In 1985 UK Prime Minister Thatcher famously asserted that media reports of
terrorist attacks served as the oxygen of terrorism (Keranen & Sanprie, 2008). A
number of previous studies have explored this charge that the medias reporting on
terrorism provides a boost to terrorists by publicizing both their message of fear and
their political demands, They have examined the question of whether governments
should restrict media coverage of terrorist incidents and organizations to limit
opportunities for terrorists to communicate with the public (see for example
Miller, 1982; Picard, 1981, 1986).
More recently, Brinson and Stohl (2010) analyzed articles from 2005 and 2006 in
major U.S. and U.K newspapers and found that media coverage of terrorist incidents
supported governments and their policies by framing their coverage in the language
introduced by government spokespersons and counterterrorism agendas. We
identified two significant underlying frames which differentiated the two countrys
media framing. The British press consistently focused on the domestic or
homegrown theme and suggested that the incidents were isolated, random, and
domestic in nature. This frame corresponded with Prime Minister Blairs statements
during this period and the wider British response, which included assigning primary
responsibility for counterterrorism to the Home Office. In contrast, the U.S. press
continually focused on the international connections of the incidents, relating
them to the international war on terror and al Qaeda. This framing corresponded
with President Bushs statements after the attacks and with the fact that the
Department of Defense was designated primary federal agency for the War on Terror.
Brinson and Stohl (2010) argued that these findings refute Mrs. Thatchers claims
and provide further evidence that news coverage of terrorism errs on the side of
governments, due to over-reliance upon the framework of interpretation offered by
public officials, security experts and military commentators, with news functioning
ultimately to reinforce support for political leaders and the security policies they
implement (Norris, Kern & Just, 2003, p. 1). Thus, as Nacos & Torres-Reyna (2007)
have argued, although terrorists resort to violence in order to manipulate the western
press, highly placed public officials and other influential political actors do not have
to unleash violence in order to gain such access, since they form one corner in the
domestic communication triangle. Whether circumstances involve domestic or
international counterterrorist politics and policies, governments are in excellent
positions to communicate their messages through news coverage (p. 143).
Civil Liberties Restrictions
The events of, and responses to, 9/11 created increased concerns for personal and
national security and sparked debate on the proper balance between security and civil
liberties and the American publics attitudes towards Muslims. These discussions
focused upon the scope of arrests and detentions, voluntary interviews, deportation,

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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


removal, and visa issues, monitoring attorney-client relations, secret proceedings, and
government non-disclosure of information, racial profiling, and the USA Patriot ACT.
The role of media messages in generating support for or against such identity-based
policies and civil liberties restrictions has been substantially examined. For example,
Tan, Fujioka, and Tan (2000) posit that evaluative portrayals of racial and ethnic groups
on television predict stereotypic responses from viewers and therefore affect voters
positions on identity-based policies, such as affirmative action. Mendelberg (1997)
examined the effects of exposure to black violence in the news and found that those
who had watched such coverage were more likely than those who had not to follow
their pre-existing racial prejudice when making judgments about identity-based
policies. They were also more resistant to government policy initiatives on behalf of
racial equality. A similar experiment by Valentino (1999) found subjects who viewed
depictions of minority crime were more likely to support the tougher Republican
stance on racial policy than that of the Democrats. Gilliam (1999) showed that those
exposed to portrayals of African Americans taking excessive advantage of welfare were
much less likely to support welfare spending and more likely to hold subsequent
negative evaluations of African Americans. Taking these findings into considerations, it
is reasonable to expect that the framing of media messages related to terrorism
would also perhaps contribute to peoples attitudes and levels of support for related
Contributors to Attitude Change
Three decades of extensive research has consistently indicated that media framing has
an important influence on the publics perception of news content. Bennett (1990)
argues that unless there is evidence of scandal, the press generally takes the political
frames and ideas authorities provide at face value, which threatens the democratic
process because it leads to groupthink and reluctance to challenge the government.
These patterns highlight journalistic gatekeeping practices in the coverage of
government policy (Zaller & Chiu, 1996) and support what Bennett (1990) calls
indexing. As a result Bennett and colleagues argue, with respect to the United States,
the press has grown too close to the sources of power in this nation, making it
largely the communication mechanism of the government, not the people . . . this is
an odd situation in what may well be the freest press system in the world (Bennett,
Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007, p. 1).
This relationship between the press and the government can be seen as problematic
in a democracy because of the influence that many argue the media have on the way
we see and evaluate things. In other words, the media help provide us with the images
we hold in our heads about the world around us. In his classic study of public
opinion, Walter Lippmann (1922) had also worried about the impact of media on a
functioning democratic society. He described the images created by the media as the
pictures in our heads, which individuals employ to help make sense of the
information that they are presented. Contemporary media scholars refer to these as
schemas, which serve to organize knowledge about particular domains, assist in both

274 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

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processing new information and retrieving stored information, and help structure
expectations and attitudes about people, situations, and events (Entman, 2003; Shah,
Kwak, Schmierbach & Zubric, 2004). Individuals depend on these schemas as a frame
of reference for organizing existing knowledge and incoming information. McLeod,
Kosicki, Pan, and Allen (1987) describe them as an organizational filing system that
aids people in making sense of political news. The already existent pictures in our
heads are a central factor in determining how external media frames will alter
attitudes and opinion. Price, Tewksbury, and Powers (1997) argue that different
frames can fundamentally affect our comprehension and encourage particular trains
of thought, especially in relation to politics and voting. Further, Iyengar (1991)
questions whether these frames alter voting outcomes:
Inevitably the question arises whether voters acting in accordance with pictures in
their heads*pictures put there by news coverage*arrive at the same political
outcome as would voters endowed with perfect information and detailed,
exacting, and creative choice processes. (p. 135)

When exposed to media frames, an individual relies on these schemata to

contextualize, understand, and evaluate the information. An individuals frames may
be reinforced, challenged, or remain unaffected, depending upon how they evaluate
the incoming media frame. This in turn, may alter attitudes, opinions, and even
behavior. In this way, framing is considered to be a two-step process, whereby media
frames prime, or activate some knowledge, thus making attitude change more likely
(Entman, 2003; Zaller, 1992). Iyengar and Kinder (1987) argue that through this
frame priming the press influences the standards by which policies are judged.
Multiple studies have found that framing drives attitudes and ultimately behavior
ranging from political cynicism to electoral support (e.g., Scheufele, 1999; Shah et al.,
2004; Zaller, 1992).
Thus, if different frames activate different schema we should find differences in the
attitudes of participants who are exposed to opposing media frames of the same
issue. For this study, we hypothesize that an international threat activates different
schema from a domestic, homegrown threat. We expect that a frame which
characterizes the threat of terrorism as homegrown would produce different tolerance
levels for restrictions of domestic civil liberties than would frames which identify the
threat as originating far away and from foreign outsiders (e.g., al Qaeda or the
Global Network of Terror). The geographic proximity of homegrown terrorism
should activate stronger concerns as a consequence of the anxiety produced by the
sense that terrorists are within. However, if this domestic frame, which portrays the
attack as an incident with no connection to international terrorism is shown to
arouse fear in people that are not geographically proximate to the actual attack, this
would suggest that something in the frame itself*and the schema that it activates*
causes the increase in fear rather than simply the threat of violence caused by
geographic proximity.
Further, as both the long line of research on Sumners (1906) in-group/out-group
hypothesis and the ferocity of civil wars and the historical reaction of populations to

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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


traitors and other enemies within (real and imagined) constantly remind us, citizens
may be all too easily mobilized against the other within the community with tragic
results (Stohl, 1980). Likewise, the willingness of the American public to intern
Japanese-Americans during World War II should serve as a reminder that democratic
societies are not immune to such reactions (see Stohl, 1976, pp. 118122).
However, the threat must be perceived to be strong for people to set aside firmly
held, core values. Restricting civil liberties in a democratic society challenges the
schemas about freedoms that democratic societies guarantee and reinforce throughout a citizens life. People with these existing schemas would need to believe that the
trade-off(s) between civil liberties and personal security was absolutely necessary to
eschew them. This could occur in the American context if people came to consider
that the very freedoms and openness of American society contributed to the
planning and execution of the terrorist attacks (Davis & Silver, 2004, p. 29).
Therefore, the homegrown threat frame is more likely to lead to greater support for
civil liberties restrictions and thus:

Participants exposed to homegrown threat frames of terrorist events, will

report greater levels of support for restricting domestic civil liberties than
those participants exposed to the same terrorist events framed as

In contrast, when terrorist events are framed as international they should trigger
threat schemas regarding international terrorism, and therefore:

Participants exposed to international threat frames of terrorist events will

report greater levels of support for more aggressive international security,
intervention and punishment for international terrorists than those
participants exposed to the same terrorist events framed as homegrown

Framing effects can fall into both minimal effects and large effects categories. Even
the slightest differential in frames can have a large effect and alter decision-making
when contextual situations are ideal, while under other conditions they may lead to
very slight adjustments to existing schema but not to overall attitude or behavioral
change (Shah et al., 2004). Zaller (1992) argues that individuals hold numerous,
inconsistent schema relating to specific issues. Further, highly engaged politically
aware individuals have more crystallized attitudes and will resist messages that are at
odds with their political dispositions and individual frames if there is sufficient
information for them to understand the difference between the received message and
the existing disposition.
Several studies have found consistent attitude differences between Republicans and
Democrats on civil liberties protections. A 2004 study conducted by Cornells Media
and Research Group indicated that Republicans are, in general, much more
supportive of restricting civil liberties than Democrats (Nacos & Torres-Reyna,
2007). Republicans are also more supportive of international security spending.
Further, a Fox News Poll on June 7, 2007 found that the question, In the war against
terrorism, do you think the United States has pursued potential terrorists here at

276 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

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home too aggressively or not aggressively enough, prompted 24 percent of

Democrats to indicate that we have acted too aggressively, whereas only 9 percent
of Republicans gave this indication. Thus, we expect that:

Levels of support for greater civil liberties restrictions will be higher for
Republicans than Democrats, regardless of frame exposure.


Levels of support for more aggressive international security, intervention

and punishment for international terrorists will be higher for Republicans
than Democrats, regardless of frame exposure.

Individual attitude formation regarding counterterrorism policies is also dependent

upon existing levels of fear of terrorism. Those who are not fearful of future attacks are
less likely to be concerned with the particulars of counterterrorism policies. However,
fear levels become more important when people are confronted with trade-offs among
counterterrorism policies and restrictions on civil liberties. As indicated above, the
restriction of civil liberties in a democratic society challenges crystallized and reinforced
beliefs. Nonetheless, past research has found that higher fears of future attacks increases
support for civil liberties restrictions (Davis and Silver, 2004). Similarly, Huddy,
Feldman, Taber and Lahav (2005) found that higher fears of future attacks led to greater
support for aggressive action, negative stereotypes and civil liberties restrictions.
Huddy et al. (2005) also found that higher perceived threat levels increases support
for punitive retaliatory actions, including military action against a threatening enemy,
especially an external enemy. Likewise, Herrmann, Tetlock and Visser (1999) argue
that Americans generally support international military action in direct proportion
to the threat they perceive from a foreign aggressor against U.S. interests. We thus
anticipate that schema activated by news frames focusing on external threats will
interact with fear to increase support for aggressive international behaviors. Thus:

Both levels of support for restricting domestic civil liberties and support for
more aggressive international counterterrorism policies will be higher for
those who exhibit higher fear levels of another terrorist attack than for those
who exhibit lower levels of fear.

Previous findings have also found that high threat levels are related to xenophobia
and out-group rejection (Huddy et al., 2005) as well as in-group solidarity, both of
which further enhance out-group bias (Giles & Evans, 1985). Therefore we posit:

Negative attitudes toward members of the threatening out-group (in this

case*Muslims) will be higher for those who exhibit higher levels of fear of
another terrorist attack than for those who exhibit lower levels of fear.

Fiske and Taylor (1984) argue that most individuals are cognitive misers and thus
frequently rely on simple and efficient strategies when evaluating information and
making decisions. Thus, as media frames or fear of terrorism enter the equation, the
impact of other factors can be suppressed. As Lang (2000) argues, an individuals
limited capacity to process information constrains the number of considerations
employed simultaneously in judgment making. This has led scholars such as Price et al.
(1997) and Lee, McLeod and Shah (2008) to propose that a hydraulic pattern of

Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


framing effects occurs. As Lee et al. (2008) explain, when one frame-induced
consideration has been accentuated, other relevant considerations will be suppressed in
the process of making subsequent judgments. Likewise, when one frame-induced
consideration is deactivated, other considerations are likely to be elevated (Lee et al.,
2008, p. 703).
Therefore, we expect participants who indicate high levels of fear, either preexperiment or as a result of the experimental manipulation, to suppress their normal
reliance on ideology and let fear dominate their responses. Likewise, if the hydraulic
pattern holds, we expect that the suppression of ideology in response to the domestic
frame will also result in a decrease in the importance of related considerations. Thus:

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In the presence of high fear of future attacks and exposure to homegrown

terrorism media frames the reliance on political party affiliation in making
subsequent judgments regarding restrictions of civil liberties will be

This study incorporates a Solomon 4 group experimental design. The manipulation,*through exposure to news frames*contains two conditions (international
frames, domestic frames). In addition, party ID, and fear of future attacks, will also be
employed as independent variables. The dependent variables are (1) levels of support
for civil liberties restrictions in the U.S., (2) levels of support for international
counterterrorism efforts and aggressive punishment for international terrorists, and
(3) attitudes toward Muslims.
Email addresses for a random national adult population were purchased through the
Syracuse University StudyResponse Center which emailed 3000 individuals offering
raffle incentives in exchange for participation. A total of 371 individuals participated
in the online experiment. The sample demographic information is contained in the
discussion of results below. The participants were all United States citizens.
The experiment was conducted in June 2008, long enough after the event for it to be
likely that participants would have forgotten the news coverage of the events. The
original 3,000 email address draw was randomly divided between four groups. A link
was emailed to one of four variations of the Internet based self-administered
questionnaire with embedded manipulation. Half of the participants received the
international frame video news report (experimental group 1) and the other half of
participants received the domestic homegrown frame video segment (experimental
group 2). 170 participants in experimental group 1 (international) and 201
participants in experimental group 2 (domestic) completed the survey. As per the
Solomon design, roughly half of each experimental group received the pre-tests and

278 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

all participants received the post-test, enabling the monitoring of changes from the
pre-test to the post-test, while also determining if participants were affected by
the experimental manipulation and not simply the pre-test. The pre-test enabled the
compilation of a baseline from which to compare the groups prior to the
manipulation with past studies of similar attitudes. Following the online manipulation participants completed the survey, and clicked submit, and then viewed a screen
thanking and debriefing them. Each participant was assigned a unique and
anonymous code which was entered into a raffle administered by the Syracuse
SurveyResponse Center.

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Video segments from the actual newscasts of July 7, 2005 were acquired through
Vanderbilt Media Services and edited by the researchers to be equivalent in length
and format. They were approximately 10 minutes in length, and consisted of news
clippings depicting the two frames. Both manipulations began with the same short
(less than two minutes) episodic introduction presented by Brian Williams on the
NBC Nightly Newswhich provided basic factual information about the attacks and
contained neither international nor domestic threat frames.
The domestic manipulation included news segments and statements by Mr. Blair
indicating that the attacks were likely to have been initiated by London locals. Some
clips focused on the individual suspects and their local connections. The international manipulation included news segments indicating that the attacks were
reminiscent of al Qaeda, or perhaps connected to attacks in other countries. It also
included clips of Mr. Bush connecting the incident to the larger war on terror. The
montages were transformed into YouTube videos and embedded in the Web based
survey which also included pre-tests and post-tests using several existing scales (see
below). The video segments were subjected to manipulation checks by two groups of
students at the authors university: those who watched the domestic manipulation
perceived the attacks to be homegrown, while those who watched the international
manipulation perceived the attacks to be connected to international terrorism.
To measure civil liberty restrictions, Davis and Silvers (2003) Civil Liberties Wave 2
Questionnaire was employed. To analyze results in more detail, the Davis and Silver
scale was divided into two indices. The first represented support for civil liberties
restrictions that affected everyone, including oneself, such as limitations on access to
information, or government monitoring of credit card information. The second
represented support for civil liberties restrictions that generally impacted others as
opposed to oneself and included questions related to racial profiling (see factor
analysis below).
Other scales included were: Stereotypical Attitudes toward Arabs, taken from
Brighams (1993) College Students Racial Attitudes and Stephan et al. (2002)s

Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


Negative Racial Attitudes; Threat Scales, taken from Davis and Silvers threat scales
(2004); Political Identification Scale, a four-item scale taken from Price et al. (1997);
Media Usage Scale, taken from the Pew 2003 dataset; and Demographic Background,
adapted from the 2007 dataset (The Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press, 2003, 2007). A few additional scales and subscales are discussed below in the
reliability and factor analysis section.

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Pre-Test Effects on Scales

A pre-test was necessary in this experiment in order to compare attitudes prior to
manipulation exposure with past support for civil liberties restrictions (Davis & Silver,
2003). One-way ANOVAs confirmed that there were no significant differences among
groups prior to manipulation. The only difference of note was an age difference
(M 3.962; p B.05). This was disregarded, as a 4-year difference in the span of our age
groups (2082) was not large enough to be generational (Mage 42.32; SD13.731).
One-way ANOVAs comparing post-tests of groups viewing identical manipulations found some significant differences between groups, suggesting that some of our
subjects experienced pre-test effects. These results indicate that those exposed to the
pre-test were likely to have higher regard for Muslims in response to some items, as
well as being less supportive of civil liberty restrictions for both self and others. In
order to correct for these differences this study used the following techniques: (1)
Affected individual variables were eliminated from the attitudes towards Muslims
scale. (2) In analyzing affected variables of fear and willingness to give up civil
liberties, post-test only groups were used. (3) Civil liberties scales were created using
only variables that were not significantly affected by the pre-test.
Reliability & Factor Analysis
Principal-components factor analysis was utilized to confirm that the scale
components were measuring unique and distinct attitudes and exploratory factor
analysis was used to assist in creating sub-scales. Factor analysis uncovered two
distinct components into which the individual Davis & Silver (2003) civil liberties
questions loaded. Factors consistent with component 1 were ID cards (.820),
government monitoring (.681) overall decreased liberties for everyone (.739). Factors
consistent with component 2 were profiling (.636), investigating protestors (.671),
and arrest and detain non-citizen terrorist suspects (.784). The components that were
uncovered represent two distinct variables. Component 1 represents liberties that
would be imposed on oneself as well as others, whereas component 2 reflects
restrictions that most Americans would not experience, but that would be imposed
on others, such as Muslims. Thus, two separate variables were created (which we refer
to as restrictions on self and restrictions on others). We found high reliability for
both the restrictions on self scale (Cronbachs Alpha.841) and the restrictions on
others (Cronbachs alpha .783). The overall Davis and Silver (2003) civil liberties
scale also produced high reliability (Cronbachs Alpha .787). Since some of the

280 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

individual components were affected by the pre-test, the scales were adjusted by
eliminating affected questions. Reliability coefficients were calculated after the
omission of these individual components.
The attitudes toward Muslims scale contained 16 final items and was adjusted by
eliminating variables affected by the pre-test and had high reliability (Cronbachs
Alpha .943). Finally, the scale containing questions related to support for
international intervention and more aggressive behavior against accused terrorists,
also had high reliability (Cronbachs Alpha .870).

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Table 1 presents a summary of the important demographic and attitudinal
descriptors of the participants prior to their exposure to the manipulations.
Tests of Hypotheses
Hypothesis 1
Hypothesis 1A predicted that participants exposed to homegrown threat frames of
terrorist events will report higher levels of support for restricting domestic civil
Table 1 Participant Summary
Political Party
Started College
Graduated College
Graduate School
Fear of Future Attack
(1 very fearful; 4 no fear)
Willing to give up Civil
Liberties for safety
(1 willing; 4 unwilling)
Support for Civil Liberties
Restrictions on Self Scale
(1 support; 2 no support)
Support for Civil Liberties
Restrictions on Others
(1 support; 2 no support)
Attitudes Toward Muslims
(1 negative; 7 positive)



1.44 (M)

2.21 (M)

2.54 (M)

2.56 (M)

2.32 (M)

2.74 (M)

1.59 (M)

1.47 (M)

1.68 (M)

1.68 (M)

1.57 (M)

1.76 (M)

4.47 (M)

3.97 (M)

4.82 (M)


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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


liberties than those participants exposed to the same terrorist events framed as
international. To test this hypothesis, a one-way ANOVA was run using SPSS.
Significant effects were found on both the Davis & Silver scale (p B.05; df1;
F 4.178) and the scale created to measure support for the restrictions on self scale
(p B.01; df1; F6.893). These differences show that those exposed to the
domestic manipulation were significantly more likely to restrict civil liberties in
general, including on themselves, than those exposed to the international manipulation. A one-way ANOVA showed no significant effects of the manipulation on the
scale specifically highlighting restrictions imposed on others.
Hypothesis 1B predicted that participants exposed to international threat frames
would report higher levels of support for more aggressive international security,
intervention and punishment than those participants exposed to the same terrorist
events framed as homegrown. A one-way ANOVA was run to test this hypothesis and
no significant effects between groups were uncovered in relation to their support for
more aggressive punishment of international terrorists and support for stronger
international counterterrorism policies (p .862; df 1; F .030).
In summary, although we did not find support for hypothesis 1B regarding the
international manipulation, we did find strong support for hypothesis 1A, so that
when terrorist events are framed as domestic, levels of support for restricting
domestic civil liberties will increase more than when the same terrorist events are
framed as international. This is especially significant since our sample consisted of
Americans who were not impacted by geographic proximity to the events and we can
thus be more confident that the increase is the result of the manipulated frames
rather than proximity to the attack, thus providing high levels of internal validity.
Hypothesis 2
Hypothesis 2A predicted that individuals identifying as Republicans will be more in
favor of civil liberties restrictions than those identifying as Democrats, regardless of
frame exposure. Hypothesis 2B predicted that the levels of support for international
security, intervention and punishment for international terrorists would be higher for
Republicans than Democrats, regardless of frame exposure. One-way ANOVAs found
significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in their support for
stronger international counterterrorism policies (p B.029; df 1; F 4.855); restrictions on others civil liberties (pB.01; df1; F14.573); restrictions on self civil
liberties (p B.01; df 1; F12.872); and the overall Davis & Silver restrictions on
civil liberties scale (p B.01; df 1; F11.792). These results support hypothesis 2.
When directly asked how willing are you to give up civil liberties for curbing
terrorism Republicans were more willing than Democrats to give up liberties in
exchange for security. Party identification also had significant effects on attitudes
toward Muslims (p B.01; df 4; F 18.192. Democrats rated Muslims more
favorably than Republicans. As indicated in Table 1, on a scale of 17 (1negative
negative attitudes toward Muslims; 7 positive attitudes toward Muslims), Democrats had a mean score of 4.82 and Republicans a mean score of 3.97.

282 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

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Hypothesis 3
Hypothesis 3 predicted that both levels of support for restricting domestic civil
liberties and support for more aggressive international counterterrorism policies will
be higher for those with greater levels of fear of another terrorist attack, than for
those with lower levels of fear. A one-way ANOVA uncovered significant differences
in support for more aggressive international policies and punishment (p B.001;
df 1; F44.618); restriction of others civil liberties (p B.01; df 1; F41.877);
restriction of self civil liberties (pB.001; df 1; F20.807); and the general Davis &
Silver civil liberties scale (p B.001; df 1; F 43.178). The direction displayed in
each of these individual results suggests that, as hypothesized, those more fearful of a
future terrorist attack are more willing to restrict liberties, and show greater support
for more aggressive international policies.
Hypothesis 4
Hypothesis 4 predicted that negative attitudes toward members of the perceived
threatening out-group will be higher for those who exhibit higher levels of fear of
another terrorist attack than for those who exhibit lower levels of fear.
The results indicate that fear had significant effects on attitudes toward Muslims
(pB.01; df4; F16.556). Those with higher levels of fear of another attack were also
more likely to have more negative views of Muslims than those with lower fear levels. In
addition, those subjects with higher levels of fear about a future attack were more likely to
believe that Muslims are often involved in violent crimes (pB.001; df1; F36.528).
Hypothesis 5
Hypothesis 5 predicted that for participants with a high fear of future attacks who
were exposed to the domestic frame, the reliance on political party affiliation
(substituting for political ideology) would be suppressed. As noted above, Democrats
were found to be less supportive of civil liberties restrictions than Republicans. After
being exposed to the international manipulation, Democrats continued to be less
supportive than Republicans of civil liberties restrictions as measured via the Davis &
Silver civil liberties scale (p B.01; F 9.316; M (1.48, 1.70)), the restrictions on self
scale (p B.05; F 5.334; M (1.45, 1.67)), and restriction of others scale (p B.05;
F 8.618; M (1.5, 1.74)). However, following exposure to the domestic manipulation, no significant differences were found between Democrats and Republicans
related to any of the above scales. We posit that hydraulic patterns of effects between
party identification and exposure to varying types of media are at play here.
To investigate the hydraulic pattern, we employed a hierarchical regression analysis.
To do so, we considered the regression weights of both party identification and fear of
future attacks on the dependent variables, as analyzed independently for each media
frame condition. This enabled us to examine the extent to which respondents relied
on (a) party identification to form judgments regarding civil liberties, (b) the role of
fear of future attacks and (c) the interaction of these two variables with the media
frames presented.

Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


Table 2 Results of Regression Models Predicting Support for Civil Liberties

Restrictions (Davis & Silver)
Experimental condition

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Model 1
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)
Fear of Future Attack
Model 2
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)

Domestic frame

International frame





Tables 24 summarize the results from the regression analyses that predict support
for varying levels of civil liberties. For each outcome variable, the same regression
models were estimated separately for the experimental conditions. The patterns
highlighted in the regression tables indicate suppression of party identification in the
presence of the domestic media frame condition. This pattern of results provides
support for Hypothesis 5 predicting that partisanship will be suppressed in the
Table 3 Results of Regression Models Predicting Support for Civil Liberties
Restrictions on Others
Experimental condition

Model 1
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)
Fear of Future Attack
Model 2
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)

Domestic frame

International frame





Table 4 Results of Regression Models Predicting Support for Civil Liberties

Restrictions of Self
Experimental condition

Model 1
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)
Fear of Future Attack
Model 2
Partisanship (Rep. Dem.)

Domestic frame

International frame





284 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

domestic frame condition. In all regression tables, entries are standardized ordinary
least squares (OLS) regression coefficients. Cell entries with different subscripts differ
in the hypothesized direction at the .05 level, one-tailed. Tests of difference in
coefficients across the frame conditions were not performed for the blocking variables
*p 5.05, **p 5.01, ***p5.001.

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Our results suggest that media framing of terrorism and other international crises
influences not only how the public perceives and reacts to an event, but also how the
public processes attitudes in the formation of judgments. In turn, this can affect
public opinion regarding government policy and the construction and maintenance
of minority stereotypes. Our data analyses yield interesting results regarding the
different ways that government influence on media can indirectly affect national
attitudes and attitude formation, and provide clear support for the impact of framing
on public perceptions and attitudes.
The results also reveal how domestic and international frames produce different
impacts. When terrorist events are framed as domestic or homegrown, individuals are
more likely to support civil-liberties restrictions. While this may not be surprising,
since we would expect increased security concerns following exposure to messages
that threaten perceptions of domestic security, we did not find support for hypothesis
1B, for which, given the post 9/11 concern with the international terrorist threat, we
expected similar results. If similar schema were activated by the international
manipulation, participants should have responded by increasing support for
international security measures. This raises the question of why the manipulation
worked for the domestic frame but not for the international frame, even though the
terrorism in question took place across the Atlantic. Perhaps there is more at work
here than simply the activation of domestic versus international security responses.
Since the domestic manipulation had a stronger impact, we would posit that the
international threat was perceived as less palpable. The domestic terror threat appears
to raise different anxieties and greater fear levels associated with the possibility of
terrorists within. Despite the fact that the event occurred in London and thus
involved an attack within another country, the domestic homegrown frame produced
a higher level of fear than did the international frame. It is possible that the domestic
homegrown frame reignited fears of such an event occurring in the United States,
which might explain the strong reaction.
As discussed, historically Democrats have been less supportive of restrictions on
civil liberties than Republicans. This study was conducted during the Presidency of
Republican George W. Bush and this should have reinforced the differences between
Democrats and Republicans. We did find support for hypothesis 3 that Democrats,
prior to manipulation exposure, would be less supportive of restrictions on civil
liberties than Republicans and this was the case for all the civil liberties scales. In
general, Democrats also consistently expressed more positive attitudes towards
Muslims. Further, prior to the experimental manipulation, we also found Democrats

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Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


to be less supportive of torture or increasing punishment levels for international

terrorists (partially supporting hypothesis 4), and less willing to give up some
liberties in exchange for security. Although these results might seem obvious and
uninteresting, they provide a baseline from which to compare the effects of the
manipulations on the experimental subjects who identified as Republicans or
As indicated above, in regard to hypotheses one and two, the domestic
manipulation created greater fear levels. This becomes clearer when we look at the
results of the manipulation effects on the two different party IDs. When the effects of
party identification are measured on those exposed to the international manipulation, we see the expected differences between Republicans and Democrats with regard
to all dependent variables. However, when we examine the effects of party ID on
those exposed to the domestic manipulation, all ideological differences disappear.
After viewing the domestic frame, significant differences between Democrats and
Republicans evaporate with regard to civil liberties. This result is consistent with the
regression analysis reported above. In attempting to predict the variables that were
more likely to indicate support for restrictions on others, party ID is eliminated from
the best-fit equation following the domestic manipulation but not after the
international manipulation. The same results occur for the models predicting
support for civil liberties in general. This aligns with our argument that the domestic
manipulation creates greater fear than the international manipulation. The domestic
frame creates effects that tend to suppress party identification. These findings parallel
results found in survey data following the London bombings, which led the authors
to conclude, Americans feared similar strikes in the United States. Because the
perpetrators of the deadly terrorism in London were identified as homegrown
Muslim extremists, there was a mass-mediated debate on the likelihood of terrorist
cells in the United States prepared to strike . . . (Nacos & Torres-Reyna, 2007,
p. 57).
These findings suggest that when frames induce or increase one relevant
mechanism used in creating judgment, another existing mechanism will be
suppressed (Price et al., 1997). Thus in this study, high levels of fear and high threat
acted to suppress partisanship in the formation of judgments about counterterrorism
policies. While it has been argued that in some situations suppression of party
identification may lead to deeper, and perhaps more thoughtful processing because
individuals are not forming judgments based on group membership alone (see
Elaboration Likelihood Model; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), we believe that the
suppression of party identification may simply make more room for emotional
fear-driven judgments. This is consistent with Cho et al.s (2003) study, which found
that emotional reactions are often caused by televised news exposure with dramatic
images as opposed to in-depth newsprint coverage.
In contrast, after viewing the domestic manipulation, the ANOVAs indicate that
party ID still appears related to attitudes towards Muslims. However, the regression
models predicting attitudes toward Muslims indicate that party ID is suppressed
when fear is added to the model. Huddy et al. (2005) argue that high anxiety will lead

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286 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

to increased support for domestic actions and restrictions on liberties due to a need
to reduce anxiety. However, they also found that anxiety has no substantial impact
on policies directed at Arabs or the endorsement of Arab stereotypes (p. 602). While
we recognize the differences between Arab and Muslim, it is important to note
stereotype conflation in the minds of Americans, and we employ the comparison for
illustrative purposes (see Gualtieri, 2009).
The only variable found to have the power to suppress ideological differences with
respect to attitudes toward Muslims is high fear of a future attack. Those expressing
higher fear were more likely than those with lower fear levels to support civil liberties
restrictions and international intervention, and indicated less favorable attitudes
towards Muslims. In addition, the results indicated that higher levels of fear also
suppressed the reliance on party identification in judgment formation of attitudes
toward Muslims. When fear levels were high, no significant differences were found
distinguishing Democrats from Republicans on any of the scales (i.e., support for
civil liberties restriction, international support, and attitudes toward Muslims). This
was further supported in the regression analysis, which again shows party
identification dropping out of the best-fit equation only for those viewing the
domestic manipulation, leaving fear as the main predictor of decreasing positive
attitudes toward Muslims.
The suppression of differences between Democrats and Republications when high
fear is present not only supports the occurrence of the hydraulic effect of framing, but
also raises an interesting issue regarding which attitudes are most easily manipulated.
The data suggest that it is more difficult to increase negative, prejudicial attitudes
toward Muslims than it is to increase support for restrictions on Muslims civil
liberties. This would indicate that although authorities may be able to garner support
in times of fear towards more restrictive policies on out-groups, greater sensitivity
may hold people back from directly expressing negative attitudes toward the same
These results may demonstrate what Gaertner and Dovidio (1986) label the
aversive racism effect, wherein individuals exhibit prejudices against minorities
only if they threaten majority values; or what McConahay labels modern racism
(McConahay, 1986) wherein individuals tend to express their prejudicial attitudes
more subtly or politely. The argument is that as a result of changing social norms and
the importance of political correctness, individuals tend to communicate expressions
of prejudice indirectly, sometimes in the form of support for or against race-based
policies with liberals likely to engage in aversive racism, while conservatives were
more likely to engage in modern racism (Nail, Harton & Decker, 2003). This study
confirms such predilections, with Republicans found to be more likely than
Democrats to support policies that infringe on minority civil liberties, which is
representative of modern racism. Democrats, however, became more likely to support
restrictions on minority liberties when faced with the fear of the domestic
homegrown threat, which is representative of aversive racism. The media impact
on aversive and modern racism needs to be investigated more thoroughly as such
effects can be severe, yet because they often go unrecognized, they are more difficult

Journal of International and Intercultural Communication


to address than the more traditional or direct forms of racism (Pearson, Dovidio, &
Gaertner, 2009).

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This study created experimental conditions to examine the differences between
domestic and international media framing of a terrorist attack. We find that the
domestic frame, portraying the terrorist attack as arising from within the country
impacted more significantly on subjects than the international frame in terms of
attitudes towards Muslims and willingness to restrict civil liberties. Thus, we find that
the differing frames the UK and US governments adopted, as identified by Brinson
and Stohl (2010), led to different levels of support for counterterrorism policies as
well as different processes of judgment formation. These findings highlight some of
the consequences of long-standing journalistic conventions, which yield consistent
structural reporting biases that include privileging authority in the framing of news
reporting (see Bennett, 2002, p. 58).
When the message of the government elite is reinforced throughout all levels of the
framing process, it may affect the publics support of government policies and
reinforce minority stereotypes and justifications for aversive racism. As this study
demonstrates, frame manipulation produces significant impacts on individual
attitudes. An interesting question in light of the results is the role of government
intention. By framing events as international and connected to al Qaeda, President
Bush remained consistent with his previous messages about supporting the war on
terror. He did not invoke the Patriot Act and the need for domestic restrictions on
civil liberties. Importantly, the results suggest that Mr. Bushs frame would not
generate increased support for his administrations counterterrorism policy, which, in
addition to the international war on terror, included the curtailment of civil liberties.
We had anticipated that the international frame, in as much that the events had
occurred in the UK, would have far more impact on our subjects than it did.
In contrast, Prime Minister Blairs framing of the events as homegrown deflected
discussion of the possible link to British participation in the War in Iraq and
suggested that higher levels of concern with Muslim minorities as well as greater
support for restricting British Muslim civil liberties were warranted. This framing led
to a substantial program of monitoring and surveillance of the UKs Muslim
Community and a fairly aggressive counterterrorism strategy (CONTEST). The
strategy includes the PREVENT policy which aggressively targeted the Muslim
Community and has been the subject of much scholarly criticism (see, for example,
Heath-Kelly 2012) as well as a critical government review (completed in January
2011) (Carlile, 2011).
Expanding the current study to examine United Kingdom citizens reactions would
be useful to gauge the strength of frame impact in conjunction with existing schema.
The dominant media messages in the UK consistently frame terrorism as a domestic
concern and given this studys results, we would expect more significant impacts from
the priming effects of the domestic manipulation. This would also provide a further

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288 M. E. Brinson & M. Stohl

test of the hydraulic effect to see if the domestic threat suppresses political ideology in
British participants, as was the case for American subjects. It would also be important
to determine whether a British sample would exhibit the same pattern respect to the
international frame as US participants.
The processes involved in the publics formation of judgments and general
opinions are important for understanding the cognitive effects of media framing and
for understanding the development of subtle attitude shifts following traumatic acts
of terrorism. The impact of events causing high levels of fear in combination with
consistent exposure to certain message frames can lead to changes in racial, ethnic,
and religious attitudes and shape counterterrorism policies. These cognitive effects of
media framing and subtle attitudes shifts are especially significant in a globalised
world of increasingly multicultural societies. Media frames can influence the extent to
which inhabitants of a country accept or reject, or become fearful of others,*
religious, ethnic or racial*living among them. Given the unfortunate likelihood that
democratic societies will continue to be the victims of future terrorist events, it is
crucial that we gain greater understanding of the implications of the interaction
between government positioning, media framing of events and the subsequent policy
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