Natural Hazards Observer

January 2005
Volume XXIX | Number 3

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Mr. Hazards trying to communicate with man with bomb

Disasters That Communicate:
A Proposal for a Definition and Research Agenda

Much of what is known about how journalism covers natural disasters comes from knowledge about how disasters develop as well as about how important actors—policymakers, responders, and the public—react to their occurrence. One particularly useful approach that has emerged has been a typology for categorizing a disaster throughout its phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. This process allows for an understanding of both natural and technological hazards and simplifies comparisons across different categories of characters, interests, and actors. It has guided the field of hazards research for decades.

Because the study of how terrorism is covered can usefully draw from the well-developed body of research on accidents and disasters, a typology for categorizing terrorist events should provide similar advantages. This essay will propose a definition and a typology of terrorism in hopes of starting a theoretical conversation that can help to first isolate and then articulate research questions across a variety of disciplines. We ask for responses to our thinking at the e-mail addresses listed below.

Creating Parallels: Definitions First

Summarizing the various efforts to define terrorism is a topic for full-length articles. Regardless, most definitions of terrorism share some or all of the following elements.

  • Terrorism implicates the innocent in its randomness—the fundamental mechanism of “terror” being a coercive fear meant to bring about or prevent change.
  • Terrorism is generally considered a tool of the dispossessed. States and their agents are quite capable of coercive violence against the innocent, and state terrorism is a notion widely used in political science and international law. To avoid suggesting that official terrorism is somehow less repugnant than the nonstate kind (Corsi, 48), many scholars use the idea of “mediated terrorism” to distinguish violence meant for a general audience, usually initiated by actors outside of traditional governmental structures who incorporate the media into their arsenal of weapons, from violence meant to influence the next village.
  • Terrorism itself is an act of communication—“violence aimed at the people watching” (Jenkins, 3).
  • Although terrorist attacks appear sudden, they are rooted in political, social, and economic contexts. Terrorism is “goal-directed, hence rational, behavior” (Waugh, 51).

Thus, we add this proposed definition of terrorism to the ongoing conversation:

A goal-directed act of communication by a person or group seeking to promote or forestall political, social, economic, or cultural change. By using violence, primarily against noncombatants, to generate fear, terrorism seeks to communicate its goals tacitly or explicitly with audiences—government or civilian—in a form of strategic bargaining.

This definition, encompassing multiple levels of analysis and multiple disciplines, places communication, both literal and symbolic, at the base of understanding terrorism. It takes as a given that however evil or nihilistic a terrorist act appears, it is, in the terrorists’ view, a rational way of addressing a rational goal (Corsi, 83). And, it suggests that access to the engines of power and communication may help promote responses that will make terrorist acts less likely. Such a view is both normative and optimistic.

A Terrorism Typology

Valuable as they are for analysis, models of how terrorist events develop have in general remained primarily descriptive. A model that adds an ordering capacity could retain that descriptive power while moving toward theorybuilding and predictive capability. So, borrowing from disaster research, the following is a suggested terrorism typology:

  • Incubation
  • Impact
  • Immediate postimpact
  • Recovery
  • Reorientation

This typology tries to avoid suggesting that terrorism is the province of any single discipline or focusing on one area of the problem to the exclusion of others. At the same time, it allows for discipline-specific research as well as the ability to link findings in one field to those in others.

Incubation: Long-Term Warning and Problematic Signals

A central, though obvious, distinction from disaster studies emerges here: tornadoes do not plan. The distinguishing characteristic of this phase in the study of terrorism is that, even if indirect and distant, it is a warning stage within a strategic contest. Rival players are making real-time decisions in a constantly changing matrix.

The 9/11 Commission Report outlines a lengthy period of incubation for the attacks on New York and the Pentagon—and one rife with signals, many of them appearing in media accounts. If terrorism is considered an act first of communication, its overt signals are vital. Incubation, though, is not only a long-term process. As with disasters, it can be a matter of days or hours rather than years. The ways people and institutions respond to warning messages are ripe for research—as are the links between specific grievances and the symbols for those grievances, the patterns of communication within cultures, and responses from political systems.

Impact, Postimpact and Recovery: Does Terrorism Resemble Hazards and Disasters?

Those who forecast and analyze terrorist events agree that at these stages, terrorist events will resemble disasters in their impact on people and the environment. Familiar patterns of media coverage will be ripe for reinvestigation, but since terrorism communicates in symbolic ways, the symbolic content of news accounts and how they are interpreted by multiple audiences, from victims to policy makers, and the interactive nature of those influences is significant and largely unexamined territory.

During postimpact, current hazards scholarship suggests event-oriented news stories focusing on official response will dominate the news, a pattern that should be reinvestigated when terrorism becomes the focus. Because crises push normally veiled responses into the spotlight, multiple disciplines have the chance to examine the inner workings of institutions and the ways media accounts reverberate in the policy-making process. Theoretical approaches, such as “setting the agenda for the agenda setters;” the symbolic nature of terrorist acts and responses to them; and distinguishing the communication and response pattern in political vs. civil violence also provide important research opportunities.

The activities of recovery often have a greater long-term impact on audiences than the event of the disaster itself. Any of a number of disciplines could be kept busy with spin-offs from one overarching research question: whether terrorism promotes different sorts of communication, as compared to natural and technological disasters, about the policy-making process and its various outcomes.

Reorientation: The Dance Begins Again

When building codes change after a hurricane or new regulations are put into place after a chemical spill, some form of reorientation is taking place. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, reorientation becomes a strategic encounter: two or more sides are competing to attain their own preferences and thwart those of their enemies.

This phase is particularly important to communication study for two reasons. One is the scale of the outcomes reorientation can produce, such as the fall of a government or a restructuring on the scale of the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The second is the particular importance of communication itself. While it is frequently a point of pride among governments to proclaim a policy of never talking with terrorists, these opposing sides can easily talk to each other while talking past each other—often in newspapers or broadcasts. The communications between parties, whether tacit or explicit, mediated or nonmediated, and of political actors to their own constituencies, are some of the most important signals available in the study of terrorist events.

The reorientation stage poses particular challenges for analysis. Like mitigation, it can start within hours of the event or wait for years, and it involves multiple institutional actors as well as individual responses. Reorientation can also produce a hardening of previous outlooks or an opening for steps toward negotiation.


None of this is bound by time. All of it reflects a reconsideration of one’s place in the world and a need to communicate it to friends, enemies, and neutrals. And however misplaced any optimism might appear in light of any particular terrorist attack, therein lies the relevance of applying the lessons of disaster research to terrorism. A systematic model built around the roles of communication will enable us to not only talk more about what communication is doing but to look more effectively at what it might be able to do.

Lee Wilkins (
Fred Vultee (
University of Missouri School of Journalism


Corsi, Jerome R. “Terrorism as a Desperate Game: Fear, Bargaining and Communication in the Terrorist Event.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 25, 47-85. (1981).

Jenkins, Brian. International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict. Santa Monica: California Seminar on Arms Control and Foreign Policy. (1975).

Waugh, William L. Jr. Terrorism and Emergency Management: Policy and Administration. New York: Marcel Dekker. (1990).

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