With images of September 11th, 2001 primed to appear in our minds upon hearing the word “terrorism”, it seems especially easy for an American to identify an event as an act of terrorism. It is important to consider, however, that despite vivid, domestic experiences with such acts, terrorism has yet to be concretely defined and media are able to filter and twist perceptions of it, whether deliberately or not. In a post-9/11 world, media, more than ever, have a role in instilling fear into a victim, and simultaneously have a responsibility to provide honest coverage of what might be acts of terror.

Many forms of media, such as television, print, and the Internet, use images to help convey messages, emotions and realities that are difficult to justify through language alone. In particular, novel images have a unique ability to firmly grab a viewer’s attention and communicate, nonverbally, the desired message (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009). Images comprise a universal medium, but the images that cover the same event can differ dramatically as a function of location.

9/11 framed as triumph of American spirit in U.S.

Images in American media that covered the 9/11 attacks typically framed the event in one of two ways, either as chaos, or as a triumph of the American spirit (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009); these frames can potentially be utilized for political agendas, in that they can define conditions as problematic, identify causes, convey moral judgment of those involved, or endorse remedies (Entman, 2003). Those images framing the event as chaos defined these conditions as problematic and were prone to controversy, since many were graphic in nature.

Journalists struggled with the ethical dilemma that pitted fulfilling the duty to give America an honest picture of what occurred on September 11th, 2001 against sparing the public, especially loved ones of victims, the pain of seeing an American’s death. Images in particular of people falling or jumping from the World Trade Center buildings were handled delicately. Ultimately, these pictures were exposed sparingly and ‘cleaned up’, which, some argued, denied Americans the emotional reality of the event (Moeller, 2009). However, this ‘cleaning up’ process may actually prevent the unnecessary pain and terror that many feel is triggered by graphic images. Ahern et al. 2002 performed a study that revealed an increased prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression among people who viewed many graphic television images of the 9/11 attacks and even more of a prevalence of PTSD and depression among those who both viewed these images frequently and were directly affected by the event. This finding further complicates media’s role as gatekeepers of information. American media have had to adapt to the changing needs of viewers, as the September 11th attacks made terrorism personal to every American.

Images from September 11th, 2001 challenged media sources to be particularly sensitive to content so that a balance of decency and honesty could prevail. Images following the attacks, however, had issues of their own. For example, immigration and security became much more urgent issues after 9/11, and images had an important role in portraying American concerns. Racial profiling was an issue that divided America into those who found it necessary and those who found it unnecessary. Generally, government officials fell into the former group and media sources into the latter (McGowan, 2003). Though media claimed an anti-profiling front, it is hard to believe that the many images of suspected terrorists of Middle-Eastern decent did not perpetuate racial profiling by increasing prejudiced attitudes. Images of Arab terrorist suspects made frequent media appearances shortly following the September 11th attacks (www.september11news.com). These images were captioned to show Americans who to fear. The words ‘terror’ and ‘most wanted’ were often paired with the face of Osama bin Laden (www.september11news.com/OsamaBinLaden.htm). Americans were given a face to fear and humans are programmed to generalize members of out-groups, primarily to economize cognitive resources (Ackerman, 2006). Perhaps since political ideology regarding terrorism often channels from the government to American citizens through media (Moeller, 2009), the government uses media to create, through images, Americans who also profile, so that fear will be further instilled in order to fuel support for the ‘War on Terror’.

American media struggled with images of chaos and fear both on September, 11th and ever since then. Terrorism is uniquely personal to Americans after 9/11, which means that images will yield different reactions than they did before 9/11. Images in American media framed 9/11 as chaos, fear and triumph, but frames will differ depending on geographic and political proximity to an event. Images from French media that covered the 9/11 attacks, for example, were primarily framed as chaos (www.interactivepublishing.net). Rubble, debris, fire and structural damage were pictured in many French media sources. Since France was relatively removed from the event, images that framed the event as triumph of Americans during struggle against a deadly force or simply as fear were not necessary. It is also important to note that victims were rarely shown in French images of the 9/11 attacks.

Interestingly, French media sources, following 9/11, became engaged in covering conspiracy investigations and LaTeleLibre is an example (www.latelelibre.fr). The images that covered 9/11 in this country, then, with their dramatic, matter-of-fact presence, could have ultimately aimed to increase awareness of conspiracy theories. The images of 9/11 in French media, along with the print, framed the event as conspiracy. This is a strong contrast from the American media frames of the event, which were mainly chaos and patriotism. Conspiracy may not be the only frame of 9/11 that French media used, but the prominence of this frame in a foreign media outlet is notable, and in Greece, similar media framing patterns have emerged.

9/11 framed as conspiracy in France (LaTeleLibre.fr)

Markela, a student at the American College of Greece, was 12 years old when the attacks of September 11th, 2001 occurred, but she is able to recall that television coverage of the attacks went on day and night for months. Since Greece is also relatively removed politically from this American threat, it is remarkable that coverage was so extensive. Terrorism in Greece, according to Markela, is largely associated with an anarchist group known as 17 November. Also according to Markela, conspiracy theories regarding September 11th, such as those outlined in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, seem to be widely accepted as accurate. Many Americans also believe that conspiracy characterized the Bush Administration’s handling of September 11th, but Americans are often considered unpatriotic if they follow such logic, which means that those who hold these opinions are not quite as bold as Greeks about considering the possibility of such theories. Markela cannot clearly remember the content of images that covered 9/11 in her country, but this alone may suggest that images in Greece covering the event were not quite as memorable emotionally, only a dramatic portrayal of possible conspiracy. Since Americans who were also very young when 9/11 occurred still clearly remember specific content of these images, it might suggest stark differences in coverage if Markela could not remember images as well. It seems that September 11th has given Americans a reason not to question the United States government, while it may have done just the opposite in other countries unaffected by patriotic investment.

The events that transpired on September 11th, 2001 and their consequences are framed very differently around the world. Although images are a universal medium, different countries use them to send different messages, depending on personal involvement in the events that the images portray. September 11th changed the way media filtered information, especially images, due to the extent to which they can bring reality, however harsh, into an individual’s life.


11-Septembre: Le Droit Au Doute (The Right to Doubt). Retrieved from: http://latelelibre.fr/index.php/2009/10/11-septembre-le-droit-au-doute-deff/

Ackerman, J. M., Shapiro, J. R., Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., Becker, D. V., Griskevicius, V., Maner, J. K., & Schaller, M. (2006). They all look the same to me (unless they’re angry): From out-group homogeneity to out-group heterogeneity. Psychological Science, 17(10), 836-840.

Ahern, J., Galea, S., Resnick, H., Kilpatrick, D., Bucuvalas, M., Gold, J., & Vlahov, D. (2002). Television images and psychological symptoms after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Psychiatry, 65(4), 289-300.

Barnett, B., & Reynolds, A. (2009). Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New York, New York: Peter Lang.

Entman, R. M. (2003). Cascading activation: Contesting the White House’s frame after 9/11. Political Communication, (20), 415-432.


McGowan, W. (2003). Postscript 9/11: Media coverage of terrorism and immigration. Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved from http://www.cis.org/articles/ 2003/back603.pdf.

Moeller, S. D. (2009). Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.