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Much of the Columbia team's research focused on the press -- especially the television media -- and how it reacted to threats of terrorism.
"Any actual threat message -- a tape by bin Laden or al-Zawahiri or an alert -- results in a great deal of messages in the media," Nacos said. "People comment on it, they analyze it ... the administration, experts in the field, including myself."
That approach magnifies the sense of threat by repetition, Nacos said. And while increases in terror alerts always made the top of the news on the three major networks, decreases tended to be buried and far less time was devoted to them -- 1 minute, 34 seconds on average for a national alert being lowered, compared with 5 minutes, 20 seconds when the alert was raised.
"The threat alone brings them a great deal of media coverage, and the public takes notice -- we've shown that the threat perception by the public increases," Nacos said.
Officials in government and law enforcement also can have an effect on the public's perception of terror risk when their statements are magnified by the media.
In February 2003, for example, the percentage of people saying they were very worried about a terror attack "soon" stood at 18 percent. One month later, after the alert had been raised and lowered, it stood at 34 percent.
The official with the greatest ability to shift opinion on terrorism, the researchers found, is Bush, whose statements in the media about terrorism correlated highly with increases in the public's perception of terrorism as a major national problem --and with increases in his approval ratings.