Talking about NSA Wiretapping and Guantanamo: A Systematic Examination the Language used by Different Networks to Report Post-9/11 Policy Dilemmas Concerning Rights

Talking about NSA Wiretapping and Guantanamo: A Systematic Examination the Language used by Different Networks to Report Post-9/11 Policy Dilemmas Concerning Rights

Linda M. Merola (George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/IJSSS.2016010102
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Abstract

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, American leaders confronted difficult dilemmas involving civil liberties in the context of terrorism. Previous scholarship has made clear that exposure to threatening information may result in significant decreases in the public's willingness to support expansive civil liberties guarantees, yet relatively few researchers have systematically examined the content of information transmitted to the public during these debates. This study employs a computerized content analysis to investigate differences in broadcast media coverage following the reporting of significant post-9/11 security/rights dilemmas. The analysis focuses on two key periods: the reporting of President Bush's authorization of warrantless NSA wiretapping in late 2005 and the coverage of President Obama's 2009 proposal to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Findings suggest that broadcast sources diverged significantly in the amount of threatening information conveyed to the public during the reporting of key security/rights dilemmas.
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Introduction

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, American leaders and members of the public have been forced to consider a wide variety of policy questions related to terrorism. Frequently, contentious debates about the appropriate “balancing” of civil liberties guarantees with concerns over security have been embedded within these policy questions (Davis & Silver, 2004a). For example, post-9/11 dilemmas of this type include questions about the propriety of warrantless wiretapping, the privacy of citizens’ library records, the acceptability of indefinite detentions and military tribunals, and more recently, the authority of the President to order assassinations via drones, to name only a few. It is no wonder, then, that across the post-9/11 period, large percentages of the American public have indicated that such issues are amongst the most important facing the U.S. (Davis & Silver, 2004b). Yet, despite the centrality of post-9/11 debates over rights, few researchers have systematically examined the content of our public discourse concerning these issues, nor its impact on members of the public (Merola, 2013b).

Although the post-9/11 discourse about civil liberties and terrorism has not often been studied by social scientists, there is a good deal of support in the literature for the idea that communications during times of threat may be particularly influential to public opinion regarding rights. For example, researchers investigating public support for expansive civil liberties guarantees (or what is frequently termed “political tolerance”) have found that the information environment significantly influences individuals as they make decisions about the appropriate scope of rights (Marcus, Sullivan, Theiss-Morse & Wood, 1995; Nelson, Clawson & Oxley, 1997). Indeed, experimental research in the field of political tolerance has demonstrated that the influence of incoming information is particularly profound when individuals feel threatened, although much of this research has examined threats unrelated to terrorism (Marcus, Sullivan, Theiss-Morse & Wood, 1995).

Thus, an examination of the content of information following a crisis, such as a terrorist attack, would seem to be crucial to understanding how views about rights might evolve following such a crisis (Merola, 2013b). As a result, this paper will examine the content of public information surrounding two key civil liberties debates during the later post-9/11 period: the discovery of President George W. Bush’s authorization to the National Security Agency (“NSA”) to engage in warrantless wiretapping and President Barack Obama’s 2009 proposal to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Even where previous research has examined the content of post-9/11 media coverage concerning rights, prior studies have largely been limited to those years directly following 9/11 (Merola, 2013b). For this reason, one benefit of this study will be to focus attention on security/rights dilemmas of the latter post-9/11 period.

Moreover, the analysis conducted below will focus on the extent to which threatening information has been transmitted to the U.S. public, a key concern given the previous findings in the field of political tolerance. Further, during the post-9/11 period, much has been made of the degree to which fear of terrorism may have been used to “scare” the public into relinquishing rights or supporting particular public policies limiting freedoms. In addition to examining the quantity of threat present in the coverage of these debates, this chapter will also compare coverage from four different broadcast news sources with the goal of understanding how the content and timing of coverage in these sources may have influenced those watching these debates unfold. Prior to further discussion of the methodology employed here and its results, however, the next section of this paper will explore in greater detail the existing literature relevant to this study.

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