Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Television Exposure Not Predictive of Terrorism Fear

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Television Exposure Not Predictive of Terrorism Fear

Article excerpt

At least since the RKO Mercury Theater production of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, communication scholars have been interested in the media's ability to generate fright. (1) Some have suggested that exposure to television content such as violent programs can lead to fear, fright or anxiety. (2) They have offered several findings: depictions of harmful events such as earthquakes, attacks and nuclear accidents can evoke fear; exposure to television violence is related to fear of being victimized; and watching television news undermines trust in others. (3)

Beginning with Cantril's early work, researchers also have noted that individual differences mediate the effects of the media. Cantril found that those who tended to panic from listening to the radio broadcast of the Martians invading the earth were most likely to possess certain traits reflecting a sense of external control of one's life. (4) More recently, studies suggest that a host of individual differences influence reactions to frightening television content. (5) Viewer attributes, then, are important contributors to and filters of media effects.

Theoretical Rationale

Focusing on how individual differences and socio-psychological dispositions affect the influence of media and their messages has been central to some media perspectives. One such perspective is uses and gratifications, which is an audience-centered perspective that assumes (a) media behavior is purposive, goal-directed and motivated, (b) people select media content to satisfy their needs or desires, (c) social and psychological dispositions mediate that behavior and (d) the "media compete with other forms of communication--or functional alternatives--such as interpersonal interaction for selection, attention and use." (6) In short, one's needs and desires are manifested in motives to communicate, which, in turn, influence media selection and attention, interpretation of media content, how actively the content is used, and, ultimately, media effects. (7)

Cognitive and affective motivation are central to media content selection, exposure and effects. People cognitively seek to maintain consistency

by maintaining an orientation to their environment and interpreting and making sense of that environment. They also seek meaning in their lives and skills to remedy problems. People affectively seek to maintain equilibrium by releasing pent-up emotions to reduce stress, relieving tension through self-expression, developing a positive self-image and behaving consistently. They also seek to enhance self-esteem, establish connection and learn how to react. (8)

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, motivated people to seek news for these cognitive and affective reasons. Cognitively, people needed to know what had happened and how their world had changed. They sought information to help them understand why the events occurred, who was responsible and how to interpret the events (e.g., as an act of war by another country or an act of terror by a terrorist cell). Affectively, people used the coverage of personal stories as a way of connecting to others. Those in New York City and Washington, D.C., and family members of the victims shared personal stories of tragedy through television.

In contrast to uses and gratifications, another media-effects perspective is based on different assumptions. According to cultivation, (a) television presents uniform images and portrayals of people and events regardless of the genre, (b) people watch non-selectively and habitually and (c) heavy viewers are more likely than light viewers to see the world in the manner presented on television. (9) In addition, cultivation focuses on the evolution of long-term enduring conceptions of reality.

Cultivation researchers have studied television's ability to generate fear and distrust. As society's chief storyteller and socializing agent, television presents images that contribute to perceptions of the world. …

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