Terrorism Movies as Risk Communication – Part I: Basic Thoughts

by Bernd Zywietz

Another clumsy attempt to write a text in English. In some sense Prof. Brigitte L. Nacos (Columbia Univ.), author of e.g. Mass Mediated Terrorism is to blame. At the end of the very inspiring conference “Screens of Terror” (Sept. 9.-11.) she advised me to publish in English. This and her thrilling speech about how fictional films and especially a TV show like 24 with their narratives (embedded or condensed in notorious counterterrorist character Jack Bauer) could be useful to broaden media study when it comes to real life politics of counterterrorism policies, motivated me to finally write this little paper.

Several times I was asked what risk communication has to do with terrorism and film. In fact there is more that connects both topics than just my personal interest: Even (and especially) fictional movies, their images and narratives are a certain and maybe very powerful kind of risk communication.

As I (and of course much higher ranking scholars before me) outlined elsewhere, risk communication deals mostly with the ways technological and industrial but also how everyday risks are depicted in the media, how people process risk information and what the best ways are to communicate with people about risks. Risk communication is closely related to crisis communication (for instance both share the same interest in certain psychological heuristics and cognitive mechanisms when it comes to evaluations and perception of risks or threats). Also both origins in a way in (near-) catastrophes like Three Mile Island, Bhobal or Chernobyl in addition to peoples’ growing (or awakening) awareness of ecological problems and technological hazards.

This new interest is reflected in fictional film production, not at least because filmmakers (producers, directors, screenwriters) are mostly interested, thrilled, moved and frightened by the same issues and events as other people, too. So by reading newspapers (or books based on real-life events) or watching television they find their stories to base movies on. And for they are interested in people being interested in their movies, so again, rely on actual circulating subjects, topics and single events for silver screen narratives.

This is a not quite unimportant aspect because even at this early stage movies start to become a kind of second-level- or meta-risk-communication: At least to a certain degree movies can be understood as communication about communication about risks. This is even the case when films try to look beyond the regular news presentation of risks and “their” events – but we will come back to this point.

How film producers, writers and directors might be up to date with the technological issues and the fear it produces shows a example which happened to be timely in an uncanny way: James Bridges’ brilliant drama THE CHINA SYNDROME (based on a screenplay by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and Bridges, well-deserving its Academy Award) was released in March 16, 1979 – twelve days before on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a partial meltdown in the nuclear power plant struck the nation. The movie THE CHINA SYNDROME, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, deals with about (almost) the same events in a Californian facility – and about how the owners of the plant try to cover up the incident together with technical defects. [1]

A young scholar took a close a look at the information flow and handling of the crisis communication together with the issues press was focussing on: Together with Mary Paden he wrote a paper for the Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 1979, pp. 43-58) which ended: “Do the experts know enough to protect us from nuclear catastrophe? That story has been around, largely uncovered, for a decade. Now it is news” [2]. This scholar was Peter Sandman who later became one of the leading risk communication experts [3].

Of course cinema’s history is full of plots reflecting society’s anxieties and urging problems. Films refer to them more directly by adapting true events or more allusively, in symbolic terms like atomic bomb monster movies of the 1940s and 50s or “what if” scenarios like the still chilling FAIL SAFE (USA 1964) by Sidney Lumet.

But while FAIL SAFE was overshadowed by Stanley Kubricks DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (UK 1964) who presented the same scenario but as a satire another TV productions about the threat of nuclear warfare deeply disturbed almost a whole generation: the ABC movie THE DAY AFTER, broadcasted in 1983 in the United States (and theatrical released in Sweden and Germany the same year) depicts the catastrophic impact and outcome of an atomic strike and its fallout to ordinary citizens in Kansas.

But of course: How does this relates to risk communication?

First of all conceptualizing fictional movies as a form of risk communication faces three main questions:

1.) In what way is a fictional story “communication”?
2.) What is the relation between fictions and “risks”?
3.) What do (and can) we do with this kind of risk communication?

Well, this three-questions-thing is a bit of a cheat because the last question combines actually several different questions but let me start with the first one.

There is a plethora of literature about how and in which ways fiction (movies, but also literature) on the one hand and films (this is: motion pictures) on the other “communicate”. Even if you let aside all the basic conceptions and psychological, psychoanalytical, physical and ontological film theories (like how the human mind processes images, is related to the screen and constructs meaning from the projected pictures [4]) we still have to face a vast area of (mass) media and communication studies – which did not really delivered an at least halfway accepted agreement of how we can think of a relationship between news media and fictional films. We major approaches – semiotics and action theory – for example focus on the category sigh and what things are done with them (as John Langshaw – J.L. – Austin’s book, the collection of his lectures on speech acts is famously called: How to do things with words [5]).

While newspaper articles and fictional short stories share the same (indirect) way of transporting information – via translation and transformation (“mediat”) into strange graphic symbols we call letters and punctuations marks – movies work more immediate (in several senses) but is problematic to define its relation to reality (let aside the problem of agree about the character or meaning of “reality”).

The problem is interesting but – at least not at this point – not insolvable for when we switch on television we daily soaps as well as news reports, both sharing the same technical and biological audio-visual channels. That news reports, for example from CNN, is a kind of communication, a source of information (that is if we not limit ourself to basic terms of information processing and media usage and not to questions of propaganda or manufactured news and so forth).

So a news report communicates inasmuch as we, the audience, receive information from a sender which alters (e.g. by adding specific details) our mental image (or model) of the real world. And this is the most important difference between news or facts and fiction. Whereas news refer to reality fiction does not, even when it relies heavily on the real world and it’s “material” and our knowledge of it to create, shape and decorate its own fictional “world” – the diegesis. Actually most of fictional stories not only use real world’s conditions, personal and inventory but even more play with it: So THE SIEGE (USA 1998) is not about any city attacked by terrorists so martial law is imposed but about New York – and it would be less thrilling if the story took place in just an unnamed or fictional city without any (cognitive; emotional) relevance for us.

But when even New York City can be used in fiction “as real” where is to draw the line between reality and fiction (inside the fiction and between fictional and factual narratives)? You can argue that the events are contrived and even if Denzel Washington, Annette Benning and Bruce Willis are real human beings, the characters with their bodies and faces in THE SIEGE are not. This is of cause true but certain problems simply arise when we think about fictions based on real events or persons like Irish revolutionary and IRA director Michael Collins in Neil Jordan’s eponymous movie (UK/IRL/USA 1996).

Here we entering a grey area: Fiction take use of real world events and persons as well as documentaries, claiming to tell us something about the real world and its present or past can fictionalize – letting play actors historical figures or dramatize situations up to a sheer symbolizing fabrication of representative characters and moments.

To complicate it a bit more let us turn to news coverage which is not any. A famous example is Orson Welles radio drama Invasion from Mars broadcasted by CBS in 1938, which – in its first half – simulated reports of an alien invasion. People took the hoax for real because although it was announced as a radio play it used the typical conventions or formal “markers” of factuality (interrupting the program, addressing listeners, using the proper news language, switching to on-site reporter) [6].

“Mockumentaries” or films based on fake found footage like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (USA 1999) or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (USA 2007) are well known to us nowadays. Their main appeal is the blurring the boundaries between the representational genres and the play with our modes of perception. But even as early as 1965 Peter Watkins directed THE WAR GAME for the BBC: a “fictional, worst-case-scenario docudrama about nuclear war and its aftermath in and a around a typical city” (Internet Movie Database) and a reaction to the Britain’s nuclear weapon politic under Harold Wilson. Unlike twenty years later THE DAY AFTER, THE WAR GAME was not broadcasted [7].

But the same year THE DAY AFTER, 1983, Edward Zwick – later director of THE SIEGE – presented SPECIAL BULLETIN. Orientated at Welles’ War of the Worlds this NBC TV movie depicts the coverage of an unsettling terrorist scenario in Charleston, South Carolina. Cleverly scripted it starts as a special bulletin from fictitious TV station RBS: A group of left peace activists, run by two scientists, are in possession of a nuclear bomb and demand unilateral nuclear disarmament concerning the immediate threat of total annihilation due to the arm race between U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. The two hostages on board are the RBS cameraman and a reporter and via direct feed to the boat SPECIAL BULLETIN switches between the terrorist’s statements, the anchors in the studio and their presented further footage and background information. In the end the terrorists are killed or seized but the technicians are not able to dismantle the bomb – which detonates.

In 1989 Tijani El-Miskin wrote:
What really moved the concerned audience to phone the television network to separate fact from fiction was the film's technique and mode of expression. When we see newscasters as opposed to western cowboy actors, for example, on the television screen, we expect a ‘real’ story: Peter Jennings or Dan Rather giving evening news on ABC and CBS, Ed Bradley reporting on ‘Sixty Minutes,’ Ted Koppel in the ‘Nightline’ program that started with the so-called Hostage Crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, McNeil and Lehrer giving their reports on PBS, etc.

It is with this television convention in mind that SPECIAL BULLETIN's audience watches the film. The title itself imitates the procedure used in the above-mentioned programs.
[...] To transpose the conventions of journalism into the world of fictional television makes the audience ask NBC for an explanation. The power of the convention overwhelmed the disavowals that constantly appeared on the screen. Its power transcends even traditional documentary film's authority or that of epic cinematography. This transposition is what I call transfictional disavowal.” [8]

El-Miskin’s “transfictional disavowal“ and other’s analysing of methods and textual strategies of audience (mis-) guidance demonstrate that and how much media perception relies on learned conventions and – based on this – a categorizing of factual and fictional accounts which might be a reason for the distress caused by September 11’s televised pictures: As Strauss and Röckerrath described two perceptive modes collide, the “pretend mode” in which we process fictional information (like catastrophic movie images of exploding planes and collapsing skyscrapers) and the mode we have reserved for real life events [9]. So “It’s was like Hollywood” simply was the helpless attempt to formulate a disturbing break-in of “fantasy” into reality moderated by nervous newscasters.

Hence the difference between fact and fiction – at least not when it comes to media representation – is not as much based on a direct reality relation (as a characteristic trait of mediated content) but on the audience’s perceptive use of this very content. Given the adequate format clues we might accept a fictional event as factual as a sceptic (or conspiracy theorist) dismisses a factual news report as biased, manipulated (and manipulating) or simply a lie.

There is surely a big difference between taking a fake documentary for a real one and enjoying a fictitious story as such (and by the very difference fiction cannot be fake or “lie” because the very speech act of asserting real world truthfulness or verisimilitude is missing). But it also makes clear that communication as action is on the recipient’s side rather independent of the very meaningful or sematic signs (not to confuse with the pragmatical one which direct us what to do with the content) – and even more of the sender’s intention!

Because even if we get some additional information about the sender’s purpose of telling (or showing) us something or he gives us some instructions in how to understand these signs (e.g. fictional or ironical), we are free to use it different or in more than just this intended way – intentionally or unintentionally. This is we are free to believe a newspaper when it asserts (by printing it on the front page) that last night a terror attack could be prevented but we also react according to information even if we know they are not relevant or reality-based – so when we are afraid of the hero in a movie.

Well, maybe it is not the same if a newspaper tells us something about the world (gives us information) and a movie giving some input or triggers some emotions. But even fictions can offer additional real information and we can do something with this information which is the same we do with news information and even our direct everyday experiences. Let us call this something “shaping our impression or image of certain aspects of the real world” or simply “learning”.

Our learning from fictional films concerns different ontological levels. When we watch David Rasche in SPECIAL BULLETIN presenting as Dr. David McKeeson his nuclear bomb on the tugboat

- we might be amuse about that (real world related) fact that Rasche played a terrorist in a peculiar TV movie in the early 80s before he became well-known Dirty Harry spoof “Sledge Hammer” (I call it artifactual knowledge for we learn something about the – or our – world in which the film SPECIAL BULLETIN is a fictional presentation or a piece of entertainment and art),

- we get to know now that the terrorists in this movie really have a nuclear bomb – or at least something that could be one (story world or dramaturgical knowledge).

Two other possible point concern representational questions:

- We might wonder if a homemade nuclear bomb would look like that in the movie, if the prop maker’s fantasy ran wild, if he had certain specifications to make it look realistic at least to a certain degree, if he looked up some real bomb pictures – or if Zwick gave him some instructions to avoid designing the bomb to close to real devices (like thriller writers claim to omit and alter some sensitive details in their books – e.g. in regard of bomb-building).

And we might ask if it could be possible for a scientist like Rasche to become such a treat: going nuts, stealing radioactive material in small enough amounts over a longer period of time. We possibly worry: Aren’t there any security measures? How probable is this scenario? Might somebody potentially feel inspired by such a scenario?

Here we are already dealing with terms of risk communication and how movies might stimulate thoughts about risks and risk assessment and management. I admit it is a very rudimental stage of risk communication yet – some even might deny that there is some risk communication at all for no real-world information is given. But I would not go this far: Fictitious scenarios have the power to alter our world perception because it might add information insofar as it makes us aware of a potential threat. The fictional worlds as possible worlds [10] can make something cognizant: A risk.

It does not matter that this risk is not “real” because the events in the movie are not real (and maybe even extremely unlikely). Not only, as I argued, we are basically pretty free in understanding, interpret and using presented audiovisual “messages”: Risks itself are not “real”.

In the next part I will take a closer look at the nature or risks, the interdependence between risks and risks, factions and fiction and other ways of how movies can communicate risks.


[1] cf. Dubner, Stephen J. / Levitt, Steven D. (2007): The Jane Fonda Effect. In: New York Times, Sept. 16. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/magazine/16wwln-freakonomics-t.html?_r=2

[2] You find an online version here: http://www.psandman.com/articles/3-mile.htm

[3] I highly recommend Peter Sandman’s Website http://www.psandman.com/index.htm. An article about him and some of his findings you find on this site HERE (in German)

[4] Some arbitrary picked classics providing some answers to some of these questions are:
- Bordwell, David (1985): Narration in Fiction Film. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
- Bordwell, David (1989): Making Meaning. Inference and Rhetoric on the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press.

[5] Austin, J.L. (1975): How to Do Things with Words. 2nd Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[5] For a general account on Welles’ Invasion’s effect and psychological explanations see: Cantril, Henri: The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, first published in 1940. It was republished 2005 by Transaction Publishers.

See also Heyer, Paul (2003): America under Attack I: A Reassessment of Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast. In: Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 28, pp. 149 – 165.

[6] According to Watkins: “The BBC panicked when they first saw the film, and sought government consultation re showing it. They subsequently denied this, but the sad fact remains that the BBC violated their own Charter of Independence, and on September 24, 1965, secretly showed ‘The War Game’ to senior members of the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Post Office (in charge of telecommunications), a representative of the Military Chiefs of Staff, and Sir Burke Trend, Secretary to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. Approximately six weeks later, the BBC announced that they were not going to broadcast the film on TV - and denied that their decision had anything to do with the secret screening to the government. To this day, the BBC formally deny that the banning of ‘The War Game’ was due to pressure by the government, but a review of now available documents reveals that there was (is) much more to this affair than was admitted publicly.” (http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/warGame.htm)

The film got a cinema distribution by the British Film Institute which also released the film on DVD in 2003.

[8] El-Miskin, Tijani (1989): Special Bulletin. Transfictional disavowal. In: Jump Cut, No. 34, March, 1989, pp. 72-76. Online: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC34folder/SpecialBulletin.html

[9] Strauss, Laura Viviana / Röckerrath, Klaus (2003): Die Wirklichkeit sehen. Dekonstruktion und Re-Konstruktion von Narrativen angesichts der Bilder des 11. September. In: Auchter, Thomas et al. (Ed.): Der 11. September. Psychoanalytische, psychosoziale und psychohistorische Analysen von Terror und Trauma. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, pp. 114–131.

[10] For the topic of fiction, narratives and possible worlds see for example Doležel, Lubomír (2000): Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore / London: Johns Hopkins University Press.