This study integrated the situational theory of publics with theories in risk communication to explore reactions to simulated media coverage of food terrorism. Focus group participants, given news scenarios about a terrorist threat on a U.S. food product, discussed problem recognition, level of involvement, constraint recognition, fear, risk, and social connections. Findings revealed a sense of "shared" involvement that influenced how participants perceived risk. When participants perceived the source of information was in "the same boat" as them, they were more likely to pay attention. Also, news coverage increased feelings of "information overload," which led participants to shut down cognitively and deny the need for protective action.
Since September 11, 2001, the possibility of another terrorist attack has led to ongoing news coverage relaying intelligence reports and other government information about potential threats. The threat of bioterrorist attacks on food supplies, or food bioterrorism, is a significant concern for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Homeland Security. Given this climate, it seems imperative to study potential audience reactions to news coverage of "hot" or critical issues such as food bioterrorism. The threats of food bioterrorism to product safety and public health are in a pathogenic sense well documented. What is less understood is how audiences would interpret news coverage of a bioterrorist attack. Once their meaning making is better understood, research can assess the potential of behavioral reactions, such as panic or denial by audiences in response to protective messages.
The purpose of this study, then, was to explore how people would make meaning of news coverage of a terrorist attack on a U.S. food supply. The research was framed using the situational theory of publics, a well-tested theory in public relations that offers a heuristic and parsimonious approach to audience reactions to hot issues covered in media. The study expands this theory by examining how it compares with popular theories in risk communication with audience reactions to risk in news. The health belief model, the extended parallel processing model, and protection motivation theory have all been used to study risk perceptions and are also addressed.
Effects of Media Coverage of Terrorism. According to Huddy, Khatib, and Capelos, "There is something personally disturbing, immediate, vivid, and frightening about the threat of terrorism."1 However, few studies have focused on effects of media coverage of terrorism.2 There has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil involving a food supply, so any study of audience response would have to be simulated and constructed. However, lessons can be learned from studies that have examined effects of other terrorism in news.
In general, most such research comes from public opinion surveys. Polls conducted at the height of the anthrax attacks (October 2001) indicated that 45% of Americans were concerned about being a victim.3 Factors that increased perceived risk of bioterrorism include uncertainty, unfamiliarity, unfairness, lack of understanding, dread, personal involvement, identifiable victims, and catastrophic potential. Additionally, after the anthrax attacks, more than 40% reported greater caution in handling their mail, and 35% gathered information on what to do in case of another attack.4
Use of Information Sources. The most commonly used source for anthrax information was local television and radio. This was consistent across age, race, gender, income, and education, although younger publics used the Internet more.5 However, in a different study, the Internet was underutilized as a source of information in general.6 Both local health officials and national experts are important sources for information on terrorism.
Situational Theory of Publics. The situational theory of publics has significant potential for applied risk communication because it focuses on three factors that influence communication behavior and action: problem recognition, personal involvement, and constraint recognition. …