Political Science, Department of


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A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Political Science, Under the Supervision of Professor Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Lincoln, Nebraska: July 2012

Copyright (c) 2012 Eric A. Whitaker


Do politicians appeal to fear, and if so, how does the public respond to potentially fear-inducing messages? I reason that changes in the political environment necessitate entrepreneurial efforts if politicians hope to maximize positive attention. Scholarship indicates that presidents can often shape press coverage or move public opinion, particularly in the domain of foreign policy or during national crises. In this dissertation I conceptualize government-issued terrorism warnings as a type of fear appeal. Specifically, I examine the relationship between changes in aggregate presidential approval and the timing of terrorism warnings over the two and one-half years after the 9/11 attacks, and whether warnings were related to changes in the overall tone of news coverage for the Bush administration and select policies. On balance, the evidence suggests that strategic considerations informed the timing of terrorism warnings as presidential approval was negatively associated with publicly disseminated terrorism warnings, and the tone of coverage tended to become more positive following each alert.

I then use experimental methods to examine patterns of individual-level responses to mediated messages about terrorism. Drawing insights from the fear appeals literature and political science research, I reason that cognitive (threat perceptions and confidence in government) and affective (fear and anger) responses to news coverage about terrorism-related threats should relate to policy preferences and presidential approval. Further, because terrorist threats target the national group, I consider how one’s sense of identification with the American people relates to cognitive and affective responses. The experimental results are mixed as cognitive and affective responses relate to policy attitudes in meaningful ways, but are unrelated to presidential approval, and national identity is largely unrelated to the outcomes of interest. In sum, this dissertation contributes to a more robust understanding of the types of strategic considerations salient at the elite level as politicians strive to maintain approval. Moreover, it extends our understanding of how people respond to terrorism-related messages by moving beyond 9/11 specifically. This study provides valuable insights for future research seeking to examine the use of emotional appeals in the political realm.

Advisor: Elizabeth Theiss-Morse