The effects of media framing on threat perception following an act of terror



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People have different needs that motivate their thoughts and behaviors (e.g., need for personal control over outcomes in their lives, need for actual / symbolic immortality). When the fulfillment of one of these needs is threatened, people will seek to reduce any discomfort or anxiety brought on by the threat. One of the ways people do this is by engaging in different threat reduction strategies. Recent research has demonstrated that people may respond differently depending on the specific need that is threatened. However, catastrophic events such as terrorism could elicit threats to a person’s need for control and need for immortality simultaneously. Because multiple needs may be more relevant in these situations, I predicted that the ways in which the media frames its coverage of an act of terror can impact a person’s subsequent responses by manipulating which psychological needs seem most threatened. I further hypothesized that if the media coverage is framed in such a way as to make most salient one need over other needs, people will engage in threat reduction strategies more in line with that threat-congruent need than with other, more distal needs. I sought both to explain a specific process that leads to differing thoughts and behaviors following an act of terror as well as the role of the media in shaping these responses. To examine these hypotheses, I conducted two studies where participants were made to experience existential threat (or not) and then presented two threat-reduction opportunities in sequence. In Study 1, participants experienced either a mortality salience threat or no threat upon reading a news article and were then assessed on policy preference and behavioral intentions toward a policy that would increase (symbolic) immortality and a policy that would increase control. In Study 2, participants experienced either a mortality salience threat, a control threat, or no threat upon viewing a video news broadcast and were then assessed on both prejudice and endorsement of government control. Both studies demonstrated that the media can make specific types of threat more salient and that people tend to prefer a threat-congruent threat reduction strategy.



Existential threat, Threat reduction, Threat, Mortality salience, Terrorism, Terror management theory (TMT), Compensatory control model (CCM), Control, Existential needs