The Subconscious Effect of Subtle Media Bias on Perceptions of Terrorism

Published date01 May 2021
Date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 313 –318
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972105
The use of specific words or expressions in news media cov-
erage affects the degree to which their audiences perceive
certain violent events as threatening. As a case in point, con-
sider the 2018 surge in homicides in London: While The
Guardian (2019) reported “London killings in 2018: how
homicides in the capital rose to a decade high,” other head-
lines on the topic read “London BLOODBATH” (Express,
2019), “Carnage in the capital” (Daily Mail, 2019), and
“London Bloodsoaked After Five Stabbings in 24 Hours”
(NewsWars, 2019). Correspondingly, the extent of threat and
urgency we associate with the same event varies with the
way it is reported on, or framed, and can play a substantial
role in triggering or sustaining dynamics of insecurity felt by
the public (Baele et al., 2019, p. 520).
This paper uses a survey experiment on a U.S. sample of
respondents to quantify how variation in media framing
influences perceptions of personal threat of violent events.
Specifically, we embed a set of labeling and wording choices
in a multivariate survey experiment alongside a range of
contextual factors—location, death toll, and type of a
reported attack. This design is chosen to capture the full
complexity of actual media reporting where individuals are
exposed to coverage that can vary along all of these dimen-
sions. Our strategy allows us to isolate which specific
aspects of the coverage affect how personally threatening a
person views an incident, on average, while allowing for the
fact that different article cues may also vary, as they would
across actual media coverage.
We find that the probability that an incident is perceived
as more personally threatening increases, on average, if arti-
cle tone is more negative and sensational, the event is geo-
graphically proximate and large in size. Even though article
tone transports no factual information, in our experiment
these wording choices carried a greater impact on threat per-
ceptions than many types of factual information and explicit
“labeling” choices included in news stories. The results have
several implications for the potential impact of media cover-
age on public opinion, as well as normative implications for
the role of media in society.
Existing Evidence and Theoretical
There exists a rich literature examining the relationship
between incidents of violence and their coverage in the
media. Studies have considered the effects of the labels used
to describe the perpetrators of an incident (Baele et al., 2019;
Montiel & Shah, 2008), the location where it took place
(Finseraas & Listhaug, 2013; Fischhoff et al., 2003), the
972105APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972105American Politics ResearchFeick et al.
1University of Konstanz, Germany
2University of Zurich, Switzerland
3Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, USA
Corresponding Author:
Karsten Donnay, Department of Political Science, University of Zurich,
Affolternstrasse 56, Zurich ZH 8050, Switzerland.
The Subconscious Effect of Subtle Media
Bias on Perceptions of Terrorism
Lukas Feick1, Karsten Donnay2,
and Katherine T. McCabe3
Media outlets strategically frame news about violent events using sensationalist labels such as “terrorist” or “Islamist” but
also more subtle wording choices that affect the overall article tone. We argue theoretically and show empirically using a
conjoint experiment that, contrary to existing studies, the effect of these two framing devices on readers’ perceptions of
terrorist events should be carefully separated. Even though article tone transports no factual information, in our experiment
negative and sensational wording choices carried a greater impact on threat perceptions than the explicit “terrorist” and
“Islamist” labels. In a realistic news article setting, which varied other salient context cues such as proximity or event size,
subtle shifts in article tone still subconsciously influenced threat perceptions. This highlights the potential dangers of media
coverage fueling otherwise unjustified fears by injecting unnecessary editorial tone.
media bias, framing, labeling, public opinion, conjoint analysis

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