Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


David A. Green

Committee Members

Ruth O'Brien

Robert Garot

Subject Categories

Criminology and Criminal Justice | Defense and Security Studies | Social Influence and Political Communication


terrorism, media, counterterrorism, journalism, political communication


The social construction of terrorism in the public sphere naturally limits and directs logical policy options. In the United States, media are a primary vehicle for the construction of social problems and accompanying policy solutions, as much of public discourse takes place in media narratives. News media play a major part in political communication, both between government and governed as well as among different segments of government.

Social construction in media is shaped by journalistic values and preferences, occurs within an active and influential policy process, and is shaped by powerful policy actors. Government-based policy actors, or governmental policy entrepreneurs, are of particular interest, as their strategies of political communication are also shaped by the “mediatization” of politics— the process by which political actors internalize and make political decisions that prioritize media logic. Moreover, the strategies they select are dependent on the individual’s or agency’s power to effect policy change.

In terrorism coverage, governmental policy entrepreneurs have a substantial amount of leverage over narratives. This dissertation is an exploratory examination of the influence that governmental policy entrepreneurs have on terrorism news narratives in two ways: via a directed qualitative content analysis of news coverage on the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, and interviews with current and former journalists. Its goals are to document the way that governmental policy entrepreneurs apply claims-making strategies involved in the construction of terrorism as a social problem within the public sphere of the American news media, and to iv systematically examine the political and organizational forces influencing the “behind-thescenes” production of these news narratives. This approach allows the claims-making strategies of governmental policy entrepreneurs that appear in media coverage to be contextualized within the values and operations of journalism that result in the claims’ inclusion in news narratives.

The findings of the content analysis establish a descriptive framework of the forms that governmental policy entrepreneurial strategies may take during a specific type of open policy window: a terror attack. Governmental policy entrepreneurs hinted at needed funding or legislative change toward new policies or used frames that reified existing preferred policies. Democrats constructed the problem of terrorism as an issue that the Democratic Party was effectively handling and the Boston Marathon Bombing as an anomaly within an otherwise effective system—agenda-affirming responses contradicting the Republican claims-making strategy. Conversely, Republicans framed the problem—terrorism—as an ever-present risk and a significant and likely-to-occur cost relative to the status quo.

Interviews with 26 journalists from a variety of media indicated that governmental policy entrepreneurs who have access to news narratives on terrorism and counterterrorism likely gain this access as a result of a confluence of three factors: an open policy window, sound use of media logic, and source power. Most respondents noted that their most important sources were current or former members of government, including federal and local law enforcement.

Many reported that they and their journalistic colleagues actively challenged narratives concerning policy options or counterterrorism actions that could have an adverse impact on civil rights and liberties, public or military safety, how America is viewed overseas, or the U.S. economy. When asked which precise journalistic strategies they used to challenge government messages, however, journalists who were interviewed described “challenging” information from government sources by consulting other members of their source networks—most of whom were also currently or formerly in government. In other words, when these journalists actively challenged information from the government, they did so by consulting other government sources.

In addition, many respondents reported that providing context to audiences was important when covering terrorism. One of the primary ways they do this, however, is to connect aspects of new terror events to pre-existing knowledge about terrorism, especially via interviews with v current or former government “experts”. By asking these experts about how a new terror event fits into the structure of terrorism they already understand (for instance, by inquiring about “lone wolves” and connecting terror cells), journalists may inadvertently and uncritically be incorporating a new face to the existing frame of an old enemy. In short, “piggybacking”, or the policy entrepreneurial strategy of connecting new events to existing cognitive and emotional symbols, may be directly facilitated by “contextualizing” efforts by journalists in stories about terrorism.

This is the first study to systematically describe the types of claims-making symbols and frames governmental policy entrepreneurs use during a focusing event of a terror attack, and then situate those symbols and frames within the larger context of the production processes of journalism and the negotiation of newsworthiness to explore how these symbols and frames reach news narratives intact. It also advances knowledge of the media-government relational system by informing methodological choices of future quantitative and qualitative studies of journalistic and policy-setting processes with regard to terrorism and counterterrorism. Finally, this study joins multiple theoretical literatures from media criminology, political communication, and policy analysis. This multidisciplinarity can greatly aid future theoretical orientations by expanding both criminological and political communication paradigms.