GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Ruth DeFoster, Terrorizing the Masses: Identity, Mass Shootings, and the Media Construction of "Terror" (New York: Peter Lang, 2017). $47.18 (paperback), 232 pages, ISBN 978-1-4331-3903-1 - Charles Joseph, Université Rennes 2.

Published by Peter Lang in 2017, Ruth DeFoster's Terrorizing the Masses: Identity, Mass Shootings, and the Media Construction of "Terror" fuels the ongoing vivid debate about how the mass media shapes people's perception and reception, in this case of terror-related events in the United States. The complete title chosen by DeFoster's could have been, however, a little more precise. While it advocates that the book will deal with the Media Construction of "Terror" , it would have been more accurate to mention the News Media Construction of "Terror". As a term, "media" encompasses a whole lot more than what DeFoster is focusing on in this study. In her introduction, she mentions the term "mass media" several times and argues that cultural studies will constitute most of her theoretical framework, yet she identifies her "overarching goal" in the book as exploring "the way that mainstream broadcast media construct, selectively invoke, contextualize and explain" the terms terror and mass shootings [6]. Yet the introduction, followed by three sections reinforcing the scientific grounding of DeFoster's study (Research Questions, Methods, Chapters), makes it abundantly clear that her primary corpus w"ill not deviate from 6 news media outlets (FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, NBC and CBS) and 3 newsprints (The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today). Media thus needs to be understood strictly as news media here.

A list of abbreviations used in the book is provided at the very beginning which proved to be very helpful since DeFoster uses different acronyms throughout the six chapters of the book, many of which even academics are not necessarily accustomed to. The book itself is divided into 6 chapters. The first two are more focused on the terms "terrorism" and "mass shooting". The first deals with terrorism and circles around 9/11 while the second deals with mass shootings and circles around the event of Columbine (April 11, 1999). Arguing that media coverage was never the same after Columbine and 9/11, DeFoster wanted to associate her defining chapters with each event. The four following chapters are DeFoster's case studies: the Fort Bragg shooting (October 27, 1995), the Camp Liberty shooting (May 11, 2009), the Fort Hood shooting (November 5, 2009), the Charleston church shooting (June 17, 2015) and the Orlando Pulse club shooting (June 12, 2016).

The first chapter (23 pages long) is entitled "Terrorism in the Mass Media: The History of a Slippery Term". DeFoster starts with the government and policy definitions of the term which is followed by two sections, first on scholarship and then on global history of terrorism. She then comments on the rise of international terrorism in the post-1968 but pre-September 11 period. She then deals with what she labels the "current era" which is post-September 11 and how we now face acts of terror and attempt to define the term and closes this first chapter by comparing the media coverage of terrorism before and after September 11.

The second chapter (20 pages long) is entitled "Mass Shootings in the United States: Mass Media and the Columbine Effect" and follows a structure similar to the first one. DeFoster opens with Columbine and retraces the event itself, spending then some pages on the challenges of defining mass shootings. She then dives into the history of American mass shootings and lists the most prominent ones before focusing on the media coverage of mass shootings. DeFoster subsequently identifies what she calls a "Columbine effect", leading to issues of identity and coverage of crime in the U.S. She argues that the American society has lost some of its perspectives around the notions of nationality as well as the military, prompting to an increasing Manichean understanding of society. Finally, she addresses the issue of mass shooting as being an American ill, a problem endemic to the country and for which it is now known for throughout the world.

Chapter three ""Nuttier than a Fruitcake": William Kreutzer and the Fort Bragg Shooting" (14 pages long) is the first case study selected by DeFoster. Each case study chapter for the military-related shootings follows the exact same structure. First a general contextualization of the event, here focused on gun violence and terror in the mid-1990s, followed by a precise account of the shooting itself and a detailed analysis of the broadcast media coverage of the shooting. DeFoster then analyzes the overall rhetoric and key themes brought by the news media, here dealing with issues of nationalism and patriotism, weapons, and finally mental illness in the military. The chapter concludes on "Lessons of Fort Bragg", synthetizing what was learned in the aftermath of the media coverage of the event at hand.

The fourth chapter (15 pages long) entitled ""Camp Liberty, John Russell, and the "Theater of War"" follows an identical structure. First a contextualization around gun violence and the Iraq war, followed by the account of the shooting and the broadcast media coverage that ensued the event. The main themes analyzed for this case study are first centered on nationalism, patriotism and the primacy of the military, then on combat stress, and finally on the "absence of military policy/weaponry". As the previous one, this chapter ends on the "lessons of Camp Liberty".

Chapter five (31 pages long) entitled "Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Shooting: Soldier or Terrorist?" does not deviate from the case study structure. First a contextualization focused on violence and mass shootings in Killeen and Fort Hood, then the account of the shooting and the broadcast media coverage of the event. One of the main themes tackled on in this chapter is about the preeminence and nobility of the American military, but it also questions whether these events should be considered as terrorism or just another mass shooting. It finally comments upon the orientalist tropes used in the Fort Hood shooting news media coverage. Just like the other two, this chapter concludes on the "lessons of Fort Hood".

Chapter six (50 pages long) and entitled ""Terror" or "Tragedy?" Charleston, Orlando, and Mass Shootings in the Age of Trump" is the book's final chapter. Even if it still deals with case studies, DeFoster decided to construct this part around two different cases, the Charleston church shooting and the Orlando Pulse club shooting. The consecrated structure of the first 3 case studies chapter is still perceptible, but extensively altered by the comparative approach. DeFoster first contextualizes each case, the Orlando Shooting and Radical Islam as a partisan war of words, and the Charleston shooting and the fight over the Confederate flag. Then the structure becomes a bit more erratic as DeFoster analyzes the coverage of the Orlando shooting before jumping on the detailed description of the Charleston shooting first and then that of the Orlando shooting. She then frames the two shootings before focusing on the broadcast coverage of the Charleston shooting. In this analysis of the Charleston shooting coverage, she discusses the following issues: the violation of the sanctity of the black church, the shooting as an unforeseen tragedy and the question of how to categorize it, the Confederate flag and the American legacy of racism, and finally the FOX coverage as a narrow vision of racism and responsibility. Her attention then turns to the analysis of the broadcast coverage of the Orlando shooting in which she pinpoints the following themes: the terror in Orlando and the prism of September 11, the lone wolf theory as an expansion of the 21st century view of terror, the Orlando shooting as a symbol of anti-LGBT bigotry, the media frenzy around the statement "If you're too dangerous to get on a plane, you're too dangerous to buy a gun", and finally the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric on FOX. This longer chapter concludes in a similar way with the "lessons of Charleston and Orlando".

The conclusion (26 pages long) entitled "Capital-T Terrorism and a Crisis of Toxic Masculinity" offers some insight that might appear as a little out of place. Indeed, the notion of masculinity was mentioned in the introduction yet never presented as a key concern of the study, masculinity was touched upon in a section of the second chapter about mass shootings in the United States, and it was briefly mentioned in chapter 6. It thus seems a little surprising to find a conclusion articulated around that very term. In these concluding remarks, DeFoster first discusses "identity and Capital-T terror" and then moves on to "the September 11 effect" and to "the military media complex and scrutiny of policy lapses". DeFoster comes back on her first three case studies in "covering the military base shootings: causes and consequences" and then takes a broader stance to cover her 5 case studies in the following section "covering weapons: questioning gun procedures and policy". She questions the status of the perpetrators of these events in "one of us, gone astray or not one of us at all: outliers and national identity" before turning her attention to two case studies in particular. In "context matters: the role of venue in Camp Liberty and Charleston" De Foster comes back on Camp Liberty and the "theater of war" and on Charleston and the nobility of the historic black church. She then reaches the final stages of her conclusion in three final sections, "redefining terrorism – lone wolves and instability", "how media define and enable terror", and "moving forward covering mass shootings and large-scale violence".

The bibliography listed by DeFoster primarily centers on articles and monographies around and about terrorism and mass shootings in the U.S. with several official government sources as well. Some others are dedicated to the news media and media representation and construction of meaning, but not many entries deal with both. While Anthony DiMaggio and David Altheide are mentioned for one article each, their books Terror Post 9/11 and the Media (Altheide, 2009) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" (DiMaggio, 2009), which are both dealing with similar issues are not mentioned here. The bibliography of Terrorizing the Masses is already 17 pages long and is rich of a variety of very interesting works, but several seminal works about media and terror and/or mass shootings are not invoked by DeFoster in her study, including notably: Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror (Danny Schechter, 2003), Language Wars: The Role of Media and Culture in Global Terror and Political Violence (Jeff Lewis, 2005), Rethinking Global Security: Media, Popular Culture, And the "War on Terror" (Andrew Martin & Patrice Petro, 2006), Emotional Governance: Politics, Media and Terror (Barry Richards, 2007), A Violent World: TV News Images of Middle Eastern Terror and War (Nitzan Ben-Shaul, 2007), Icons of War and Terror: Media Images in an Age of International Risk (John Tulloch, 2012), Mass Shootings: Media, Myths, and Realities (Jaclyn Schildkraut & H. Jaymi Elsass, 2016). Because of these omissions, DeFoster's work appears as a little apart from a collective thinking process in which she is here inscribing herself.

It should be noted that nothing is said about the connection between the news media coverage strategies regarding each event and how they can also be linked to fiction of fictionalization processes. Given how DeFoster is rooting her work in cultural studies and "media" in general, it would have been interesting to touch upon how the collective imaginary might also inform how these coverages are apprehended by the masses, but also how they are constructed by the media outlets themselves. Because the theoretical framework of cultural studies is here clearly invoked by DeFoster herself, it could have been expected to read about the relationship between the news media and other media focusing on fiction. DeFoster argues that "none of us are immune to the influence of the mass media" and "none of us are immune to the influence of popular culture," insisting that "media representation has shaped our collective memory" [3], yet nothing is addressed about the importance of the collective imaginary shaping that same memory. Jean Baudrillard (among others) has discussed how 9/11 had a tremendous impact on how the surreal suddenly made its way into the news, and how the news media's relationship to reality and factuality has also evolved since 9/11; as a result, integrating the fictionalization and sensationalism strategies of some news media outlets would have been appreciated.

The different case studies chosen by DeFoster are mostly well selected, but the first one remains odd. Even if DeFoster argues that the Fort Bragg shooting is very important to consider, the fact that she insisted in her introduction about how media coverage has changed dramatically after the events of Columbine (1999) and 9/11, the decision to include the events of Fort Bragg dating from 1995 is not particularly convincing. Other monographies and articles have dealt with the media coverage of that event, usually compared with the Oklahoma bombing, and it would have made more sense to strictly limit the case studies to events occurring after 9/11. The last chapter is also rather confusing. Deciding to make a comparative chapter between two events is laudable, but the Charleston church shooting and the Orlando Pulse shooting were not the best cases to analyze together. As argued by DeFoster herself, their motivations and coverage differ and the only thing linking them is the so-called "age of Trump" in which they occurred, making the overall comparative analysis of the lengthy chapter somewhat artificial.

Because the study conducted here relied on a comparative approach, it would have been interesting to include the analysis of other English-speaking countries and the coverage dedicated to these events in order to comment upon the potential globalization of such media treatment and its meaning-making. It has been argued by many analysts and scholars that 9/11 triggered an alignment effect in terms of news media coverage practices of such events and the massive growth of continuous news media channel in European countries for example, replicated American models. Questioning if the debated news media coverage was not endemic to the U.S. after all would have been a welcomed addition. Overall, Terrorizing the Masses offers interesting and meticulous quantitative case studies, but the questionable structure and some omissions of similar works limit the scope of the concluding remarks and hinder DeFoster's general input about the news media meaning-making of terror.

© 2019 Charles Joseph & GRAAT On-Line