By Harley Williamson, Suzanna Fay* and Toby Miles-Johnson**

This article was first published on

Accurate and responsible news coverage of terrorist attacks is critical because media consumption relates to a heightened fear of terrorism.

Media reports inform the wider public about terrorism, but they often emphasise a picture of brutality and violence. Given that public knowledge of terrorism is almost always informed by media reports, responsible journalism is critical.

The type of media people consume and how they respond to media messages can heighten feelings of fear. Types of media that require active engagement – such as browsing websites or reading newspapers – may increase a person’s fear of terrorism to the greatest extent.

Fearing terrorism can affect citizens psychologically, and it can influence their attitudes towards counterterrorism policies introduced by governments. Evidence suggests that members of the public are more likely to support harsher policies if they fear a certain crime. It is therefore critical to know and address how fear of terrorism becomes sensationalised and embellished in the public discourse.

Researching how media reports can heighten fear

Our research of over 4000 people tested how exposure to different media sources (including newspapers, radio and TV) and the amount of media consumed affects fear of terrorism.

The key findings

When participants receive information from multiple media sources, they are more likely to fear terrorism. This is equally true where the same media outlet publishes across multiple platforms (online, television, print). This confirms that all media platforms have a responsibility to accurately report events without inciting fear or panic.

However, not all media sources are equally correlated with fear. In our research, fear was higher among those who accessed media sources that they had to go out of their way to access. This includes the Internet, government leaflets, and newspapers, where people choose what to read. Radio and TV, which can be consumed more passively, had a less dramatic effect.

Deliberately seeking out information often serves to confirm what a person knows about a topic. The problem of confirmation bias suggests that someone who already fears terrorism is likely to seek out additional information that makes them fear it more.

Publishing accurate information is important in all journalism, but this finding suggests it is particularly needed on platforms requiring active engagement. Audiences that search for information must be able to find sources that can productively shape and challenge their views.

This is important regardless of how much the audience knows about terrorism prior to consuming the content. Even where participants had more knowledge of terrorism, their fear was still high. Prior research suggests that fear can be reduced when citizens know more information about the topic. However, our research suggests that when people are inundated with a high volume of news about terrorist groups and attacks this may actually increase fear of terrorism.

Where to from here

Journalists are bound by a set of principles that guide their professional conduct. Obtaining the truth, being loyal to the public good, verifying information, demonstrating independence and impartiality, maintaining proportionality and avoiding sensationalism are among some of the key elements of appropriate journalistic practice. The relationship between the media and fear reinforces their importance.

Unfortunately, the desire to attract audiences can outweigh the need for appropriate, factual coverage. For example, The Sun described the 2017 Westminster Bridge attacker as a “maniac who knifed Britain in the heart.” Three years earlier, The Daily Telegraph quickly dubbed the Sydney siege as a “death cult CBD attack”, when circumstances surrounding the siege were still uncertain.

Understanding the links between media reporting and fear of terrorism confirms that headlines like these are unhelpful. Not only are they likely to create excessive fear, they may also have practical ramifications. During and following terrorist events, calm and considered reactions from members of the public (for example, if evacuations are needed) are likely to contribute to public safety. Such sensationalist reporting may also play into the hands of terrorist groups, which thrive on publicity and the fear it generates.

Accurately informing the public without sensationalising crime is important in all journalism, but particularly so in the national security environment.

*School of Social Science, University of Queensland

**School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology