Terrorist acts such as the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, the TWA Flight 847 hijacking in 1985 and the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 have long increased public awareness and consciousness of terrorism. Opinion polls taken before the Sept. 11 attacks showed that most Americans felt that terrorist acts around the world were a serious threat to U.S. security. (1) This public fear of terrorism was tremendously reinforced by terrorist strikes on America on Sept. 11, 2001, which were unprecedented in terms of the death toll and damage. The strikes were recorded as the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history and in the world. On that historic day, U.S. newspapers expressed their anger and surprise with the following headlines: "U.S. Attacked" (The New York Times); "`Acts of War'" (San Jose Mercury News); "Terrorists attacks horrify nation" (The Seattle Times); "Who did this?" (Akron Beacon Journal); "A new day of infamy" (San Antonio Express-News); "`Today, our nation saw evil'" (Orlando Sentinel).
Historically terrorist acts have attracted much media attention due to their dramatic characteristics. In covering them, however, the media have been often criticized for not providing the social or historical context of terrorist actions. (2) Most of stories dealing with terrorism were episodic, describing terrorist acts or victims rather than thematic, discussing the cause or background of terrorism. (3)
This study attempts to determine whether two highly influential newspapers--The New York Times and The Washington Post--provided context in their stories to help readers understand why these attacks occurred. It also looks at how critical these newspapers were of the U.S. security system. Finally, the study analyzes how the two newspapers portrayed Osama bin Laden and the attacks.
The definition of terrorism depends on the institutional ideological structure in which terrorist acts are framed or organized. According to Wittebols, terrorism is classified into grievance terrorism and institutional terrorism. (4) The former is defined as "terrorism that challenges power or seeks redress of grievance" (5) and includes insurgent terrorism. The latter, which includes state terrorism, seeks to maintain power and the status quo through the use of terrorism. On the whole, the media have provided full and critical coverage of grievance terrorism but have been less inclined to examine institutional terrorism with the same depth. (6) In particular, the media have rarely addressed state terrorism in cases where the United States was a sponsor or supporter of a government engaging in terrorism. Perpetrators of terror who were adversaries of the U.S. government have received more hostile coverage than those who were on good terms with U.S. government. (7) In his literature review, Wittebols found the following three themes emerging in the media coverage of terrorism: "We are victims, they are terrorists"; "the United States strives to do good in the world"; and "terrorism is the product of irrational minds, not objective conditions." (8)
In the analysis of terrorism-related events in Time in 1986, Steuter found media did not report the historical or social context of terrorist actions because of the symbiotic relationship between the media and political power. (9) The terrorists were identified with criminal violence and often defined as the product of communist conspirators threatening Western democratic society. By failing to provide a context for terrorism, the media portrayed terrorists as irrational and barbarous. They ignored the social and political causes underlying terrorist actions, trivializing the objectives of the terrorists and sensationalizing the violence of their acts. (10)
According to Iyengar's analysis of U.S. network television coverage of terrorism (1981-1986), 74 percent of all news stories consisted of live reports of some specific terrorist act, group, victim or event (episodic) while 26 percent consisted of reports that discussed terrorism as a general political problem (thematic). …