Outrage Factors and Explanations in News Coverage of the Anthrax Attacks

By Swain, Kristen Alley | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Outrage Factors and Explanations in News Coverage of the Anthrax Attacks


Swain, Kristen Alley, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This content analysis examined risk communication factors in news coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks appearing in 833 stories from 272 newspapers, AP, NPR, and four national television networks (CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC). An exploratory framework posits that when outrage factors characterize crisis coverage, accompanying explanations mitigate negative public reactions by putting the hazard into a broader context. Stories that portrayed uncertainty-through conflicting reports, speculation, use of unnamed sources, and coverage of vague advice and hoaxes/false alarms-frequently contained outrage rhetoric. However, speculative coverage often contained explanations that helped to contextualize frightening circumstances.

Anthrax captured worldwide attention and aroused serious public health concerns following the intentional release of deadly spores in the U.S. postal system in fall 2001. A week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a letter containing anthrax powder was mailed to Tom Brokaw at NBC but was not made public.

National news coverage of anthrax incidents began Oct. 4, 2001, the day that Robert Stevens, a photo editor for South Florida supermarket tabloid publisher American Media Inc., learned from watching CNN that he had anthrax infection. He died the next day from exposure to the same strain that had been mailed to NBC, and he was the first respiratory anthrax fatality in the United States since 1976. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that Stevens had contracted anthrax by drinking water from a stream, a medically improbable explanation for inhalation infection.

Contaminated letters quickly surfaced across the United States, and spores spread through the postal system. Federal officials did not acknowledge a possible terrorism connection until Oct. 9, after nine postal workers tested positive for anthrax exposure. From Oct. 4 to Nov. 20, eleven inhalational and eleven skin-contact cases of anthrax infection were identified, and five of the inhalational cases were fatal.1 The cases generated immense media attention and dominated the nightly television news for several weeks.

News coverage of the attacks illuminated how journalists cover events when the intent and capabilities of terrorists are impossible to ascertain. The official, initial response was confused and spread across many agencies. Reporters found themselves in the midst of a story where they were both messengers and potential victims.

This study explores linkages among outrage factors and explanations in news coverage of the anthrax attacks. Figure 1 highlights the role of explanation in mitigating public outrage in a crisis. This framework shows relationships among risk communication factors that will be examined in this study, both through existing literature and analysis of the concepts manifest in the news coverage.

Outrage Factors

Outrage Rhetoric. The traditional scientific method of assessing risk is to characterize the hazard; quantify the frequency, duration, and magnitude of exposure; and estimate the probability of an adverse health consequence.2 This approach differs radically from the typical public reaction to a risky situation. Risk is the product of an actual hazard plus a community's outrage-its negative public response-to the hazard.3 In a threatening situation, uncertainty provokes outrage, which often leads people to perceive greater risk than actually exists. Experts tend to overestimate risk when the hazard is high and underestimate risk when the hazard is low, while the public does the opposite.

Indeterminate risk breeds fright. When individuals are upset about uncertainty, they believe they are in danger, but when they are not upset, they tend to think they are not endangered. Also, individuals tend to believe a hazard occurs more frequently when they can easily recall or imagine such instances. Thus, when news coverage of a risk increases, this increases the perceived likelihood of the risk occurring. …

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