Elevated threat levels and decreased expectations: How democracy handles terrorist threats

Tabitha Bonilla*, Justin Grimmer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


A persistent concern in democracies is that terror threats make the public willing to restrict freedoms for increased safety. But a large literature has struggled to determine how terrorist threats affect the public's policy preferences. To more credibly estimate the effects of terror threats, we exploit elevations of the U.S. government's color coded alert system. Using this design, a statistical model for texts and a new collection of news stories, we show that media outlets allocate substantially more attention to terrorism after an alert. The alerts have, however, only a limited effect on the public. The terror alerts raise the public's perceived likelihood of a terror attack, but opinion about President Bush's job performance, preferences for foreign intervention, or willingness to restrict civil liberties changes little in response to the alerts. Rather, the only consistent result is decreased economic expectations-consistent with the strong economic downturn after the 9/11 attacks and the types of stories published after the terror alerts are elevated. Terror alerts, then, did not exercise direct influence on the public's policy preferences. Instead the alerts changed the topic of conversation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)650-669
Number of pages20
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


Dive into the research topics of 'Elevated threat levels and decreased expectations: How democracy handles terrorist threats'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this