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College of Arts & Sciences
Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute

Terrorism's Spatiality and Identity through Media Content Analysis

Elizabeth C. Dunn

Advisor:  Dr. Susan L. Cutter



The impacts of terrorist actions were a function of the spatially defined physical event and the spatially undefined psychological, sociological, and political reactions to the physical event. As the agenda-setting theory in communication research suggested, the mass media had the power to influence public discourse and governmental action with its reaction to terrorist incidents. This research sought to answer three broad research questions, including whether terrorism exhibited spatial patterns, whether newspaper coverage of terrorist incidents varied depending on the identity of the responsible party, and whether the discrepancies found in the coverage gave rise to any implications when framed under agenda-setting theory of communication.

In order to answer the proposed questions, several methods stemming from the disciplines of geography and communication were used. The geographical methods used a combination of data from the Global Terrorism Database and the Terrorism Knowledge Base databases to geocode domestic and international terrorist incidents during the time period of 1970-2005. A spatial autocorrelation was run on the locations of terrorist incidents to reveal clusters of activity for the entire time period and by decade. The analysis of two newspapers from the United States: the New York Times and the Washington Post. This content analysis, which included both quantitative and qualitative techniques, focused on the "watershed" type events that occurred in the three regions of study: North America, Western Europe, and Middle East and North Africa. This analysis revealed variance in news coverage of terrorist activity based on the perpetrator's identity. More specifically, perpetrator(s) identified as 'Arab' or 'Muslim' were more likely to be termed 'terrorist' in the newspaper coverage than other identities.

Responding to these questions about terrorism and mass media coverage provided insight into possible spatial patterns of terrorist incidents and into patterns of media coverage. In the field of hazards research, studies using media analysis techniques focused on the reaction of the media after a natural or technological hazard event. In the communication research field, studies involving agenda-setting theory were concerned with mostly political issues such as civil rights or political campaigning. The successful completion of this research resulted in an example of the amalgamation of the two fields of study: hazards and communication research.