The War on Terror & The Fight against Fear

Sarah Buttle

‘The War on Terror’ & ‘The Fight against Fear’

Taking Walter Lippmann’s phrase “the pictures in people’s minds” or the theory of attribute agenda setting brings additional insight into the influence of mass media on its audience. The core idea of his theory is relevant today as it explains how the elements prominent in the media’s picture become prominent in the audience’s picture and in-turn become regarded as important by the public (McCombs, 2004, p.68).

The concept of news framing offers a new insight into the mass influence held accountable by actors of the news and public sphere: presenting how the public thinks, behaves and reacts about different public affairs and issues. Maxwell McCombs explains how these matters typically embrace “both cognitive and affective elements, involving what the public thinks, their attitudes and opinions” (McCombs, 2004, p.69).

A study by Salwen and Latera found correlations between foreign news coverage and public opinion that suggested that home-grown and international news coverage indeed has an agenda setting effect (Wanta, Golan and Lee, 2004).


I wish to demonstrate the power of the mass media in how it creates negative views, opinions and attitudes towards the Muslim community, and I will examine how the mass media frames terrorism negatively through various agenda setting effects.

If we look back at the sum of negative press published since George. W Bush proclaimed to the world that we are now entering into the “war on terror”, it shows an alarming amount of negative press published against the Muslim community. Bashy Quraishi analysed six national newspapers and two national Danish television channels and found that 75% of all media coverage was about Islam, with 60% negative stories (Quraishi, 2012).

Interviewed by CNN after the terror attacks of 9/11 Bush said that “Over time it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity…You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terrorism” (Siraj, 2014, p.30). This perhaps is noted as the beginning of the ‘Occupation’ and the divide between Western ideologies of the U.S. and the ideologies of countries which are Islamic states with Muslim populations.

There have been many outspoken actors like Bush who have voiced their opinions and as a result have created fear amongst civil society by creating pictures in their minds. Margaret Thatcher publicly accused Muslims when speaking to The Times as “the people who brought down those towers were Muslims, and Muslims must stand up and say that this is not the way of Islam. I haven’t heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests” (Siraj, 2014, p.27).

More recently Tony Blair, a faithful supporter of the Bush administration during the Iran and Iraq invasion proclaimed “the war against fundamentalism”, which has similar language to the powerful message from Bush on the ‘war on terror’ (Siraj, 2014, p.27).

Through the framing of terrorism with public figures publicly speaking of ‘war against fundamentalism’ this creates angst and fear amongst society with regard to Muslims. In the U.S. the two social institutions that have the most power to shape what is defined and labelled as terrorism are the government and the media (McQueeney, 2014).

In Siraj’s report he conducted a survey which showed that the views of Muslims are more negative in eastern and southern European countries: Hungary 72%, Italy 69%, Poland 66%, Greece 65%, Spain 50%, Netherlands 35%, Sweden 35%, France 29%, Germany 29% and UK 28%, (Siraj, 2014, p.30).

A major factor that contributes to Islam stereotypes in the West relates to the selection of common names used in the news like ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’, when more neutral terms such as ‘revivalists’ or ‘progressives’ are ignored. Quraishi views state that “no matter how secular and non-practicing, law abiding, taxpaying, peace loving person, Muslim is always denied in the West by the media, the politicians and the people and are judged by the parameter of Islamic faith, a religion perceived by the West as extremist” (Siraj, 2014, p.31).

Edward Siad from ‘Covering Islam 1997’ observed that the tone of the Western media was against Islam and that the media portrays Islam as “violent and a destructive religion for individuals and civilisation” (Siraj, 2014, p.31). With many other crises occurring globally, and with many home interests being ignored such as mortgage crisis, why have the mass media focused relentlessly on terrorism, when statistically Americans are highly unlikely to be harmed by a terrorist attack?

In 2001, car accidents killed over 12.5 times more Americans than did the 9/11 attacks (McQueeney, 2014). In the nine Democratic primary debates in 2010, for example, the moderator asked a total of 30 questions about terrorism, and not one question about poverty. I bring this up as a study in 2011 by Columbia’s school of public health estimated that 4.5% of all deaths in the U.S. are caused by poverty, and yet again the agenda was fixed on ‘the war of terror’ (Johnson, 2016).

A U.S. Today Gallup Poll from 2010 revealed that almost a decade after 9/11, Americans still perceived terrorism as the most serious threat to their well-being. This is alarming as census data also provided that there are now more than 1.5 million Arab-Americans and 2.6 million Muslim-Americans in America, with many aware of the negativity against Islam (McQueeney, 2014).

Johnson also found that polls show people are indeed increasingly worried about terrorist and about “Islamic Fundamentalism”, which it is often inflate in media discussions- republicans fear of Islamic Fundamentalism is now higher than immediately after 9/11 (Johnson, 2016).

Research shows politics and the media have an agenda setting effect by using two frames when reporting on terrorism: ‘domestic home-grown’ and the ‘international frame’. In Brinson’s analysis of media coverage of terrorism incidents, he concludes that the agenda is always supported by governments and their policies by framing their coverage, introduced by the language of government counterterrorism agendas (Brinson and Stohl, 2012, p.272).

These frames provide evidence that there is a need for policy makers to introduce counter-terrorism policies in order to protect civil society against ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’, a term which The United Nations states should be not used by the media (United Nations, 2017).

Through Brinson and Stohl’s investigation on how media coverage influences attitudes towards Muslims, they showed there is an increased perception of fear. This is resulting in “the willingness of citizens to curtail their own civil liberties as well as those of others as part of counterterrorism policies” (Brinson & Stohl, 2012, p.271). They proved how fear, through the hydraulic effect (Price, Tewksbury & Powers, 1997) acts to drive out other possible responses.

I believe news framing, especially on the complex matter of terrorism, now questions the roles of civil society and the role we play as part a democratic society, and more importantly the role of the media in society with regard to supplying the public with objective and unbiased text. Terrorism should be reported with the interest of the public first and foremost.

Through my research I have gathered that the government and policy makers use the media to demonstrate their agendas, specifically when you examine the medias influence when assuring the public that there is good reason for the governments mass expenditure on foreign policies to ‘defeat terrorism’. Bennett argues that the media have become too interlinked with the agendas of governments rather than the people (Bennett, Lawrence & Livingston, 2007).

Adam Johnson wrote a fantastic piece for FAIR titled ‘Which Candidate Will Better Exploit the Irrational Fear of Terrorism?’ He reflects on the 2016 presidential election between Clinton and Trump, with terrorism being the hot topic in both campaigns, with the media focusing on who had the upper hand.

Below I have included four headlines as examples of what Johnson calls ‘the hottest horse race of 2016’, proving that politicians work with the media, both framing terrorism as an urgent danger (Johnson, 2016).

“Clinton, Trump Jockey Over Who Would Best Fight Terrorists” (WNBC, 2016), “Who Has the Upper hand on Terrorism, Clinton or Trump?” (Politico, 2016), “Terror Threat Clash: Trump, Clinton Accuse Each Other of Boosting Enemy” (Fox News, 2016) and “Clinton, Trump Spar over Terrorism in Wake of Latest Attacks” (USA Today, 9/20/16).

Johnson further argues that there is something crucial missing from these reports and that is neither reports include any discussion of the relative danger of terrorism. He says “reporters begin with the premise that voters are afraid of it, never challenging the underlying rationality of those fears”, (Johnson, 2016).

The premise of my argument is that the media creates the pictures in our minds and that it is the medias responsibility to report factual information and not to be the stage for politicians to win horse-races.


Referring back to the essay title based on Walter Lippmann’s beliefs (1992), he also worried about the impact of media in a functional democratic society as he described the “images created by the media as the pictures in our heads”, which individuals employ to help make sense of the information with which they are presented (Brinson & Stohl, 2012, p.273).

Ghanem argues in his second hypothesis on agenda setting that the public learns the relative importance of issues from the amount of coverage the issue is given in the news media. He further argues that “a coverage of an object will lead to more concern with an object… The more negative media coverage a nation receives, the more individuals will think negatively about the nation’, (Wanta, Golan & Lee, 2004, p. 367). Ghanem’s theory is fitting for the aftermath of media coverage of the attacks of 9/11.

 The coverage of the 9/11 attack and the events that followed showed how influential the media was to those who viewed the distressing footage from their homes across the globe. In times of crisis, this coverage is priceless, but it also raises the question as to what is the agenda of reporting such horrific images and distressing debate without facts or evidence. For people in the U.S. there was a new wave of anxiety and fear amongst civil society. (McCombs, 2004, p.70-72).


There were reports about the large number of people who watched the newscasts suffering from increased anxiety and post traumatic shock. Many young children were traumatised by the events of 9/11 and required therapy, as Arthur Asa Berger explains in ‘Setting the Agenda’ (McCombs, 2004, p.70-72).

Signorelli and Gerber also found that by the age 18, the average American child will have seen more than 16,000 murders, viewed more than 200,000 acts of violence on television. They consulted with a neurologist about mediated violence and he suggested that “violent scenarios may affect us by modifying our neurological systems; violent acts may become a form of conditioning” (McCombs, 2004, p.153).

One can imagine the damage that the media inflicted post 9/11 as a result of reporting such graphic and distressing imagery and text, the image of the Syrian refugee boy lying face down on a sandy beach in Turkey have created an emergence of fear and hatred against the Muslim community with an increase in Islamophobia.

Shareefa Fula of the Muslim Youth Helpline argues that Islamophobia is causing among the Muslim community depression, suicide and other distressing symptoms. She states how Muslims in Europe and the U.S. “feel isolated and criminalized and neglected and how the media are very hostile and often portray Muslim minorities as uncivilized, primitive and a problem to the continuation of European culture” (Siraj, 2014, p.33).

For the earliest humans, making assumptions about the world around them and trying to avoid danger, was a matter of life and death. Sometimes our inflated confidence impairs our judgment. Confirmation-bias, is how we interpret information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs or hypotheses (Fernandez, n.d.) (, 2015).

In today’s world of highly accessible information it is extremely difficult to limit the pitfalls of human biases and the ‘Fear Appeal Theory’ feeds on this weakness and provokes perceptions that stimulate stress, threat and fear (Williams, 2012). The mass media have perfected this method: creating fear within society and creating negative attitudes and views towards the Muslim community because of the negative press on Islam.

A ten-year analysis of foreign news coverage on network television indicated that the ABC, CBS and NBC networks covered the world in a biased manner. Results showed that between 1972-1981, the three networks focused 32.4% of their coverage on the Middle East, 21.1% on Western Europe, 10.8% on Eastern Europe, 9.5% on Asia, 6.7% on Africa and only 6.2% on Latin America (Wanta, Golan & Lee, 2004, p.366).

Stephen Davidowitz investigated the increase in hatred for Muslims, but what’s more exceptional is when compared with prejudice against every other group in the United States, he found that negative attitudes against Muslims today are higher than prejudice against any group in any month since 2004 (Stephens Davidowitz, 2015).

Said (1997) argues that malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last “acceptable form of vilification of foreign culture in the West”; what is said about the Muslim mind, character, culture or religion would not be said about other minority ethnical groups in the mass media i.e.; Africans, Jews or Asians (Siraj, 2014).

As Consumers of the media we assume that what we are reading is both credible and reported with honesty. Public opinion polls are often used when reporting on terrorism. The problem with opinion polls is that the simple question, “How much support is there for terrorism?” is difficult to answer and simplistic answers or guesses are the bases of ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ for a news story. These ‘guestimates’ are dangerous when reporting on terrorism and especially when using opinion polls that show how much negativity is felt towards Muslims.

An example of a vague news report which creates fear in her audience is by Peggy Noonan, of the Wall Street Journal, she wrote; “There are said to be 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Let’s say only 10% of the 1.6 billion harbor feelings of grievance toward ‘the West’, or desire to expunge the infidel, or hope to re-establish the caliphate. That 10% is 160 million people. Let’s say of that group only 10% would be inclined toward jihad. That’s 16 million. Assume that of the group only 10% really means it, would really become jihadist or give them aid and sustenance, that’s 1.6 million…”, (Schmid, 2017, p.13).

This news report is an example of an agenda with the aim to provoke fear and create the image of an increased chance of a terrorist attack and shows how the media literally creates pictures in the reader’s minds.

It is to no surprise that the 34th Islamic Conference Foreign Ministers expressed major concern at the rising tide of discrimination and intolerance against Muslims in Europe and the U.S. The conference of ministers announced that they felt Islamophobia is now the worst form of terrorism (Siraj, 2014, p.29).



The media must look at what can be done to create journalism which reduces the propaganda effect for either the terrorist or politician “By showing more empathy for the people involved and including more constructive narratives for resilience and understanding, the news media can at least counter the sense of fear and hopelessness terror news can induce” (Beckett, 2016).

I feel I have demonstrated the impact the mass media has in creating negative views, opinions and attitudes towards the Muslim community and Islam. Twenty-five years ago, Walter Lippmann also worried about the impact of media in a functioning democratic society and with the increase in Islamophobia, which I hope to have proven is framed by mass media, it is an epidemic of racism at an all new high.

He described the images created by the media as the “picture in our heads, which individuals employ to help make sense of the information they are presented”. If the information that is been continuously presented in the media on terrorism is both inaccurate, harmful, impartial and negative, then the mass media may create a greater, potentially harmful fear amongst the public. To finish my essay, I wish to reflect on what ‘The News’, a Pakistani International newspaper published in London, very clearly pointed out in its editorial when it said;

“The Western media can continue to react to Islam with hostility, fear and ignorance or it can try to understand the faith, its traditions and its history. Instead of portraying Muslims and Islam in derogatory terms, the West should seek the positive” (Siraj, 2014, p.34).



 Beckett, C. (2016). ‘Fanning The Flames: Reporting Terror In A Networked World’. Tow Centre for Digital Journalism Columbia Journalism School and Democracy Fund Voice, [online] pp.66-67. Available at: http://file:///E:/Sociology%20Media%20’Terrorism’/Reporting%20on%20Terror.pdf. [Accessed: November, 2017].

Berger, A. (2017). Media and Society. 3rd ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p.2. (2015). ‘Cognitive Biases as a Barrier to Decision Making’. [online] Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Brinson, M. and Stohl, M. (2012). ‘Media Framing of Terrorism: Implications for Public Opinion, Civil Liberties, and Counterterrorism Policies’. Journal of International and Intercultural Communications, [online] 5(4), pp.270-286. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Fernandez, E. (n.d.). ‘A Visual Study Guide to Cognitive Biases’. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Fox News. (2016). Terror Threat Clash: Trump, Clinton accuse each other of boosting enemy. [online] Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Johnson, A. (2016). ‘Which Candidate Will Better Exploit the Irrational Fear of Terrorism?’ Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. [online] Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

McCombs, M. (2004). Setting The Agenda. ‘Chapter 5: The Pictures in Our Heads’. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.68, 70-72, 153.

McQueeney, K. (2014). ‘Disrupting Islamophobia: Teaching the Social Construction of Terrorism in the Mass Media.’ International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 26(2), pp.207-301. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Politico. (2017). Who has the upper hand on terrorism, Clinton or Trump? [online] Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Price, V., Tewksbury, D. and Powers, E. (1997). Switching Trains of Thought The Impact of News Frames on Readers’ Cognitive Responses. [online] Sage Publications. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Siraj, D. (2014). Critical analysis of Islamophobia in the West and the Media. Islamophobia Studies Journal, [online] Volume 2 (Issue 2), pp.26-35. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Schmid, A. (2017). Public Opinion Survey Data to Measure Sympathy and Support for Islamist Terrorism: A look at Muslim Opinions on Al Qaeda and IS. International Centre for Counter- Terrorism, [online] p.12. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

United Nations, 2017. Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists. (2017). United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, pp.34-37. Available at: http://file:///E:/Sociology%20Media%20’Terrorism’/United%20Nations%20PDF.pdf. [Accessed: November, 2017].

Wanta, W., Golan, G. and Lee, C. (2004). Agenda setting and International News: media Influence on Public Perception of Foreign Nations. J&MC Quarterly, [online] 81(2), pp.364-375. Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

Williams, K. (2012). Fear Appeal Theory. Research in Business and Economic Journal. [online] Available at:

Quraishi, B. (2012). Analysis of Danish Media setting and framing of Muslims, Islam and racism. [online] Available at: [Accessed: November, 2017].

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Sarah Buttle

Mental Health Youth Advisers for the Milestone Study