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Selling Fear

Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion

While we’ve long known that the strategies of terrorism rely heavily on media coverage of attacks, Selling Fear is the first detailed look at the role played by media in counterterrorism—and the ways that, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration manipulated coverage to maintain a climate of fear.

Drawing on in-depth analysis of counterterrorism in the years after 9/11—including the issuance of terror alerts and the decision to invade Iraq—the authors present a compelling case that the Bush administration hyped fear, while obscuring civil liberties abuses and concrete issues of preparedness. The media, meanwhile, largely abdicated its watchdog role, choosing to amplify the administration’s message while downplaying issues that might have called the administration’s statements and strategies into question. The book extends through Hurricane Katrina, and the more skeptical coverage that followed, then the first year of the Obama administration, when an increasingly partisan political environment presented the media, and the public, with new problems of reporting and interpretation.

Selling Fear is a hard-hitting analysis of the intertwined failures of government and media—and their costs to our nation.

An online appendix of additional data is available.

264 pages | 50 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Media Studies

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political Behavior and Public Opinion


“Still seen as a foundational document for US journalism, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ ‘Statement of Principles’ declares that a free press exists to inform citizens, serve as a forum for debate on important public issues, and bring independent scrutiny on government and other centers of power in society. Using an impressive mix of theory, quantitative and qualitative content analysis, and public opinion data, Brigitte L. Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and Robert Y. Shapiro convincingly demonstrate that in the crucial years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the news media did none of these things. Aptly titled, Selling Fear is an important and sobering book, documenting a press that was ‘more lap dog than watchdog’ and that only ‘rediscovered its bite’ after the nation was deeply mired in the Iraq War, civil liberties and human rights had been violated at home and abroad, and opportunities to improve our ability to deter terrorism and increase our disaster preparedness were lost.”

Michael X. Delli Carpini, University of Pennsylvania

Selling Fear is destined to be the source for media coverage and polling trends during the Bush-Iraq era.”

Lance Bennett, University of Washington

Selling Fear is a must read for scholars of the mass media, public opinion, and terrorism. The book matches extensive content analysis of television coverage of the war on terrorism with public opinion data to present a nuanced look at the American public’s reaction to the events of 9/11 and its views on counterterrorism policies ranging from civil liberties to the war in Iraq. . . . A great addition to courses on media and politics, public opinion, and the politics of terrorism.”

Shana Kushner Gadarian | Political Communication

“A carefully constructed, ably executed social science study that employs an impressive methodological array and a clear theoretical lens. This book has all the makings of a classic in political communications. Highly recommended.”

E. T. Jones | Choice

“[T]here is much to commend in Selling Fear. The book is very important in its careful documentation of the shortcomings of the fourth estate in covering the issue of terrorism post-9/11. The lack of opposition voices among elites and the press enabled the Bush administration to enact policies that threaten the very fabric of American society. The breadth of the content analysis of media coverage and its effects on public opinion will make it the authoritative source on media coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath. Selling Fear will appeal to a broad audience; the writing is clear and accessible, making it a pleasure to read.”

Jennifer L. Merolla | Public Opinion Quarterly

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1. The News as Commodity, Public Good, and Political Manipulator
Chapter 2. Selling Fear: The Not So Hidden Persuaders
Chapter 3. Civil Liberties versus National Security
Chapter 4. Selling the Iraq War
Chapter 5. Preventing Attacks against the Homeland
Chapter 6. Preparing for the Next Attack
Chapter 7. Mass-Mediated Politics of Counterterrorism

Postscript. President Obama: Underselling Fear?



Carl Couch Center: Bruce E. Gronbeck Political Research Award

Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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