Scary Pictures: How Terrorism Imagery Affects Voter Evaluations

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Journalists, candidates, and scholars believe that images, particularly images of war, affect the way that the public evaluates political leaders and foreign policy itself, but there is little direct evidence on the circumstances under which political elites can use imagery to enhance their electoral chances. Using National Election Studies (NES) panel data as well as two experiments, this article shows that, contrary to concerns about the manipulative power of imagery, the effect of evocative imagery can enhance candidate evaluations across partisan lines when they originate from the news but are more limited when they are used for persuasive purposes. By looking over time, the three data sets demonstrate different circumstances in which terrorism images have different effects on candidate evaluations-crisis versus non-crisis times and through news exposure versus direct use by a candidate. The NES data reveal that exposure to watching the World Trade Center fall on television increased positive evaluations of George W. Bush and the Republican party across partisan boundaries in 2002 and 2004. The news experiment that exposed subjects to graphic terrorism news in a lab in 2005/2006 increased approval of Bush's handling of terrorism among Democrats. Lastly, an experiment where hypothetical candidates utilized terrorism images in campaign communication in 2008 demonstrates that both parties' candidates can improve evaluations of their foreign policy statements by linking those statements to evocative imagery, but it is more effective among their own party members.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)282-302
Number of pages21
JournalPolitical Communication
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2014


  • experiment
  • foreign policy
  • images
  • terrorism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science


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