A “routinization” of sorts, to put it charitably, has come to characterize the reporting of terrorism in the United States, as well as the public consumption of the reporting. This was visible as the news broke of a foiled plot at John F. Kennedy International Airport last weekend. The New York Times assigned to the story to Page A37 in its Metropolitan section. Newspaper editors once called dismissing unwanted stories like this as “putting them back with the truss ads.” Then there was this from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life.”
The diminution of terrorism as unworthy of public concern and media interest is something important with which Official Washington must come to grips. When it does, it will realize that perceptions of the media and the public have changed. The public registers a kind of simmering worry, but the organs of the media don’t. This threat has been misjudged before and will be again.
The public seems considerably less alarmed than in the months and years just after September 11. This is documented in polling data, which says that terrorism has lost its place at the top of public concerns and worries. In the most recent opinion polls it ranks well below Iraq, jobs or the economy. But when respondents are asked only about terrorism, the responses are similar to those of four or even five years ago. They’re still worried, but the worries have been reduced to fatalism.
For example, over five years of asking Americans this question: “How concerned are you about the possibility there will be more major terrorist attacks in the United States?”, ABC News found last year that Americans give roughly the same response they did in only two months after September 11. Between a fifth and a third of the respondents said they worried “a great deal” in November 2001, and similar numbers have persisted since. The percentages of those who are “somewhat” worried stabilized in the low-to-mid 40s between the years 2001-06. “Not too much” bounced between 12 and 20 percent and “not at all” between 4 and 8. The margin of error is three percent.
This is remarkable constancy, especially in light of how President Bush’s approval numbers have plunged in polls conducted by the same polling firms over the same period. Other polls reveal a similar picture. Coupled with the “national priorities” data suggesting that terrorism is no longer a top concern, this suggests the public has come to regard terrorism like hurricanes or tornadoes. We worry, but there’s no point in obsessing about it, beyond focusing on regular checkups of emergency management agencies.
The changes in media perceptions are different. The media seemed bored with the revelation of a plot to blow up fuel dumps at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. We typed the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” into Lexis-Nexis to see how many entries we could find for the New York Times and The Washington Post over January of the years 2002-2007. We found a precipitous drop in the frequency of “terrorism”: 1,250 uses in the New York Times in January 2002 down to 512 in January 2004 and 328 five months ago. The drop was steady and steep. In The Washington Post it was 881 in 2002, 473 in 2004 and 297 this year. “Terrorist” dropped precipitously from 2002-04 as well, and steadily in smaller increments in both newspapers thereafter. We also checked the month of August, which, with the exception of the year 2004 and its noticeable election-year uptick, also trended downward.
The media reflects the public interest, and politically correctness, too. The gratuitous use of the dodge words “allegedly” and “authorities say” in stories buried back with the truss ads reveals an urge to be politically correct. The diminution of terrorism coverage nevertheless poses a dilemma for the organs of the media. The threat of terrorism is still there, whether the public and editors like it or not. The public and the media have been wrong before. They could be wrong again, with the inevitable regrets.