Examining the fear-inspiring spin in the Austin bombings coverage

There’s one thing in life-threatening situations that can severely limit how people respond: fear. That’s one of the reasons public officials and emergency responders are trained to lead the public in ways that raise awareness and caution, but lessen fear. The latest news coverage of the Austin bombings doesn’t exactly do this.

The Knife analyzed four news outlets that covered Sunday’s bombing in Austin, and found they used emotional, subjective language (spin) that could encourage fear, rather than lessen it. The analysis also examined the city’s advisory for comparison, and found it wasn’t spun the way the articles were. On the contrary, it was informative and clearly instructed people on how to respond, should they encounter a suspicious package. Here’s a look at what we found in the media coverage (we’ll mark the spin so it’s easy to spot).

CNN, Fox News, The New York Times and Reuters all said Austin was “on edge” — the latter three put it in their headlines, in fact. It might seem trivial or nit-picky, but there are effects to this choice in language. Compare these two headlines: Which is more informative? Which appeals more to emotion? Which could inspire a lack of confidence in law enforcement efforts to track down those responsible?

Austin on edge - Police fear serial bomber behind Texas blasts (Reuters)
Austin police suspect ‘serial bomber’ after 4th explosion in one month (The Knife)

The articles also made numerous references to fear, aside from the one above. For instance, Fox News wrote that the bombings “have gripped the Texas capital in fear.” It’s understandable, even expected, that people would feel fear about the news of the attacks. Yet to say Austin is “gripped in fear” is a more subjective and generalized, perhaps dramatic interpretation of what’s happening there.

When it comes to spin, a word or two can make a significant difference. Consider this excerpt from CNN.

What makes Sunday night's blast especially terrifying is that the device was left on the side of a residential road and triggered by a tripwire, police said Monday.

If we replace “especially terrifying” with a word like “different,” is there any loss of facts? The substitution would certainly lessen the emotionality, and it would make the sentence more objective.

The articles also cited several residents who expressed similar views as the outlets. For example, the Times cited a person who said, “I think everyone in Austin is in the process of trying to figure out exactly how nervous to be,” and Fox cited a witness who described the sound of the explosion as “not a car crash, not gunshots but something terrible.”

These perspectives are of course valid, as these people are stating their own experiences. What we’re questioning is the emphasis given to them, which was disproportionately greater than quotes or facts that might guide the public in the current circumstances. Precise, objective facts may better equip Austin residents to respond.

The city’s advisory is an example of this. It’s informative and it deals with the issue at hand in an objective way — no added drama.

We are advising all residents of Austin: To be aware of your surroundings at all time (sic). Please pay close attention to any suspicious device whether it be a package, a bag, a backpack or anything that looks out of place, DO NOT approach it and call 9-1-1 immediately. Also remember DO NOT move, touch or open unexpected/suspicious packages.

One of the media’s roles is to serve as a type of public service announcement system, especially when there is physical danger. The question is, can it fulfill this responsibility without adding drama?


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media