Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media, Terrorism, and Emotionality: Emotional Differences in Media Content and Public Reactions to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media, Terrorism, and Emotionality: Emotional Differences in Media Content and Public Reactions to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks

Article excerpt

In recent decades, scholars have examined differences in effects between exposure to television and exposure to print media. Two key premises underlie this research endeavor. One can be labeled "Medium Theory," which assumes that differences in the formal features of electronic and print media--such as motion, combination of audio and visual tracks, and "live performance" of newsmakers on television--lead to different emotional and cognitive reactions. The other is rooted in sociocultural studies of televised "media events," which argue that television's use of "live broadcasting" and juxtaposition of news reports with dramatic video footage leads to collective experiences--both cognitive and emotional--of a major news event that are uniquely different from the experiences transmitted through print media.

However, claims of between-media differences are often made without explicit connections between media coverage and audience responses. Assertions about differences in effects are often made on descriptions of differences in formal features or differences in production processes between the two types of media without presenting direct evidence of the actual effects of such differences. This study makes an explicit connection. By using computer-aided content analysis and community surveys, this study examines differences in the emotional tones of newspaper and television coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and relates audience use of newspaper and television news to emotional reactions to the attacks.

The terrorist attacks were chosen for this study because the events were universally dramatic and emotionally evocative for an extended period of time, and saturated all mainstream media outlets. A nation-wide survey by the Pew Research Center (2001) showed intense and wide-ranging emotional reactions to the attacks. In addition, some data have shown that the media coverage of the attacks has been decidedly one-sided in presenting the nation, in unison, condemning the terror attacks and coping with the collective trauma (Carey, 2002; Schudson, 2002). These characteristics of the events offer us a unique opportunity to explore between-media differences in both coverage and effects.

Medium Differences and Narrative Emotionality

Researchers from a variety of perspectives and theoretical traditions have argued that television is more emotionally arousing than print media. Inspired by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan (1964), scholars have argued that television, with its combination of audio and visual tracks, its apparent real-life tempo, its nonlinear juxtaposition of video images taken at different times and locales, and so on, interacts with human senses in a unique way. It is thus capable of producing its own forms of thinking and communicating (Meyrowitz, 1985). Some also argue that these technical attributes interact with market forces to create a unique "media logic," a format of presentation that integrates visual images, tempo, and rhythm in the unfolding of a news story, depictions of personalities, and dramatization of human emotions to make television news qualitatively different from print-based journalism (Altheide & Snow, 1991).

Other scholars have argued for the uniqueness of television by focusing not on its technological attributes but on the social uses of the technology. As Schudson (1982) points out, "[T]he way the technology is used has a relation to, but is not fully determined by, the technology itself" (p. 97). To these scholars, the technological potential of the television medium is cultivated in a market-driven "showbiz" context. As a result, television news coverage is driven by broadcasting organizations' overarching desire for "good visuals," "good stories," and personalities--the key elements for conjuring higher ratings. In routine news coverage, such desire gets translated into "episodic" coverage (Iyengar, 1991), namely, concrete occurrences or events with little contextual or thematic connection. …

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