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Media Dependency During Terrorist Attacks: Comparison of Traditional and Social Media Use

Info: 9968 words (40 pages) Dissertation
Published: 23rd Dec 2021

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Tagged: MediaSocial Media

Purpose of the Study

Although media dependency theory has been applied to understand individuals’ communication behaviors during critical situations, more research is warranted, especially regarding comparing individuals’ dependency on both traditional and social media. For example, in the light of media dependency theory, Foster (2004) found that new media are more likely to have a positive impact on a participant’s affective media system dependencies in terms of entertainment, inspiration and fulfillment. He emphasized the importance of conducting a comparison between traditional and social media. Furthermore, Glade (2004) stated that students reported a noticeable dependency on media during the period following 9/11 with the goal of social understanding, and, therefore, it is important to examine whether there are differences in dependency based of the type of media used.

Along the same lines, Hu and Zhang (2014) demonstrated that channel choice, especially mobile phone and interpersonal communication, varies in its role of different levels of threat during crisis situations. Further, the continuing evolution in the field of new communication technologies and the advent of new forms of communication such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, requires examination of their influence during crises compared with traditional media.

The Significance of the Study

It is surprising that so little empirical research has actually focused on the topic of media dependency during terrorist attacks, and there is little research that has conducted a comparative study of traditional and social media use during such situations. However, this study suggests that the advance of digital media is changing the relationship between media and consumers and aims to understand the potential consequences of these changes on media system dependency. This study is important for several reasons.

First, it will help expand an understanding of the influence of a media system environment in the way that people use and communicate via different media during a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, this study is significant because it aims to understand the role of new communication technologies during terrorist attacks on a country in which the government dominates traditional media and thus new communication technologies are the only communication means available to the public to discuss freely public affairs.

It also helps explain whether social media platforms successfully shift individuals’ media dependency during crisis events. This study will also provide new data because the majority of earlier research published on media dependency has been conducted in Western societies where information is easily available to all people (Tai & Sun, 2007).

Second, this study will shed some light on traditional media’s ability to compete with social media to attract people’s attention and interaction during a crisis such as a terrorist attack. Further, research in this area can help scholars and administrators better understand social media consumers’ behavior in the time of a terrorist attack, which is important because an individual’s communication behavior, such as disseminating rumors to other people, may lead to making situation worse. The result of this study should help update the traditional media system’s theoretical perspective.

Additionally, Saudis increasingly obtain information from social networks. Users of social media platforms often cluster people together into homogeneous social and political communities in which they follow a particular school of thought or position taken by the online community. Within each social community, members freely share their views, comment on one another’s postings, and often critique opposing views (Sunstein, 2002). In other words, social media have emerged as a means of creating social awareness, and clear social discourses are emerging for Saudi citizens to pursue.Given the increasingly important role new media outlets perform in facilitating the dissemination of information during crises, it is vital to understand the outcomes of social media dependency on civic participation during terrorist attacks and how individuals perceive these new communication technologies, in particular of promoting civic engagement.Upon completion, this study shall be able to effectively establish the relationship between dependency on social media platforms during terrorist attacks and the level of civic engagement in Saudi Arabia.

Theoretical Framework

Media dependency theory, which provides this study’s theoretical framework, was mainly developed by Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer (1976) to understand the relationship between people and media. Media dependency “is a theory about the determinants and the consequences of this dependency relations: its formation; variation across individual, time, and situation; and its consequences” (Ball- Rokeach, 1998, p.17). The theory argues that if an individual becomes dependent on mass media to satisfy a certain need and goal, the media will become an important information source to that individual. Therefore, individuals tend to develop relationships with media that provide them with a range of benefits and opportunities to understand their environment (Grant & Meadows, 2014).

Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer (1976) started from the assumption that before one can understand the cognitive, effective, or behavioral aspects of individuals’ social realities engendered by mass communication information, one must first understand the interrelationships among audiences, the media, and society. This tripartite relationship of audience, the media, and society defines many effects that the media generate on both people and society. Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer (1976) argued that the degree of audience dependence on media as an information source is a focal point in understanding how the media influence audience members’ beliefs, feelings, or behaviors. They valued the role that media can effectively fulfill as a primary information resource. They assumed that as society becomes more complex, the media increasingly have an important role in bringing reality to light and making the public have a sense of the social world.

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Figure 2. Society, media, and audiences: reciprocal relationships (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976).

Ball-Rokeash (1985) classified the origins of individuals’ media system dependency relations in two categories: macro level and micro level. Macro level focuses on political and economic forces that affect the environments in which media function. This relationship is considered relatively symmetric in that each system relies on other systems to exist. For example, in modern societies, the media rely on the economy and politics in order to survive, while politics and the economy need the media to mobilize public support and get strategies accepted. These interrelated relations have a powerful influence on media production processes, or what kind of messages the media do and do not disseminate (Nabi & Oliver, 2009). This, then, shapes individuals’ dependency on media as their primary source to the economic and political system.

Micro level, which is known as individual media system dependency (IMD), refers to the relationship between individuals and media. Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach and Grube (1984) argued that goals play a major impact on individuals’ motivation toward media dependency. That is, the individual media relationship is moderated by motivations that incite individuals to seek specific form of media in their effort to achieve a particular goal. Ball-Rokeach, Rokeach & Grube (1984) argued that the term goals is the best word to describe the rational and irrational and the conscious and unconscious motives for media use. Media dependency theory, therefore, suggests that media individuals’ media dependency can be classified in three categories, each of which has two subtypes (discussed below): understanding dependency, orientation dependency, and play dependency. All these types of dependency are fundamental to individual welfare and therefor may contribute to creating individual media dependency relationships.

Understanding dependency refers to individuals’ efforts of trying to make sense of the social environment within which they should act. It can be classified in two subtypes: social understanding and self-understanding. According to Loges (1994), social understanding refers to the knowledge one has of how society and its institutions work as well as the perception that one holds about his or her role in that society. In modern society, when it comes to social understanding motivation, the media have become a central avenue of creating and shaping public opinion, and an individual’s experiences and the experiences of others become secondary rather than primary sources of information. As an illustration, study of media adoption after the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano found that individual dependency on media for goals of understanding increased as the ambiguity of eruption increased (Hirschburg, Dillman, & Ball-Rokeach, 1986). In other words, people turn to the media to understand the situation around them and how to cope with the difficulties that they face. Moreover, the media are viewed by many people as an essential source for satisfying self-understanding goals. For example, in recent years, the media have become more pronounced at disseminating information regarding personally relevant topics such as getting to know oneself as a sexual and social being and learning to overcome personal crises and failures.

Another goal of individual media relationships is orientation dependency, which requires the individual to act or interact (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1984). In other words, orientation goals refer to an individual’s search for information that may serve to facilitate individual decisions and how to function in social environment in a proper way (DeFluer & Ball-Rokeach, 1989). Therefore, Ball-Rokeach et al. (1984) claimed that there is a logical connection between understanding and orientation dependencies because the strategies of action that we adopt are contingent upon what we comprehend from the media. An individual’s reliance on the media for action orientation goals includes information regarding “goods and services, recreation, everyday coping behavior, crisis behavior, and self-defense” (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1984, p.9). Previous researches into media dependency relations have found that threats are strongly related to action orientation goals during the situations of uncertainty (Loges, 1994; Lowrey, 2004). To take a case in point, Hindman and Coyle (1999) examined audience orientations to local radio reports regarding the April 1997 Red River Valley floods. The findings showed increasing dependency on local radio, and this dependency was positively related to perceived degrees of unification of the society and the mobilization of volunteers.

With the increased role of the media in society, many people dedicate much of their time with media with the goal of play dependency. Play dependency consists of two subtypes: solitary play, which refers to “esthetic enjoyment, excitement, or relaxation”, and social play, which means adopting media as “facilitators of social intercourse” (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1984, p.10). Play dependency occurs not only during normal situations, where audiences turn to the media to enjoy themselves and spend leisure time, but also during emergency situations to help them ease the tension caused by intense difficulties or crises. Ball-Rokeach (1985) emphasized that although understanding and orientation dependencies become more intense in ambiguous and threatening situations, play dependencies also heighten as individuals feel that the media as an information source help to release tension or cope with emotional stress.

Media dependency theory research has long suggested that individuals’ media dependency vary by media type. Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer (1976) explained that individuals who establish dependency on television with the goal of social understanding should be exposed to different types of television programs than those who depend on television for play goals. For instance, Meadows (1997) indicated that women depend heavily on television for the goal of social understanding, and they depend more on magazines for self-understanding. Moreover, media dependency theory finds links between media dependency and individuals’ perceptions about the helpfulness of a particular type of media. In other words, the more people perceive a medium’s content to be helpful, the more likely they rare to rely on that medium for receiving news and understanding social reality.

Media dependency research focuses on the circumstance under which information from media represents an important value to the goals of individual, groups, and other social systems, thereby increasing the intensity of dependency relations (Loges, 1994). During a time of ambiguity, for example, individuals actively seek for information that is necessary to relieve their anxiety and face the situation around them. Individuals experience ambiguity when they lack sufficient information to understand social conflicts, new environment threats, and increased social changes (Nabi & Oliver, 2009).

As the media can play a significant role in increasing public awareness and updating information about a specific issue, media dependency relations are, therefore, expected to intensify, especially when the media system is perceived to be the primary information system available (Ball-Rokeach et al., 1984). A growing body of media dependency studies has shown a positive correlation between perceived threats and dependency on media for information. For example, Lowrey (1994) found that individuals’ concerns about threats during the 9/11 terrorist attacks contributed to an increased reliance on the media because the news media reduced stress caused by ambiguity. Moreover, Glade (2004) conducted a quantitative content analysis of media diaries and a qualitative analysis of reflection papers to examine student dependency on the media before and during the attacks of 9/11. The findings showed that students depended on news sources during the week of 9/11 with the goal of social understanding.

Aiming to explain the consequences of individual media dependency, media dependency research has helped predict a wide range of individual’s behaviors and attitudes associated with media dependency. Studies have found that some behavioral aspects can be attributed to the influence of media dependency (Jiang, J., & Ouyang, 2008; lowrey, 2004; & Patwardhan, & Yang, 2003). For example, the purchase of products and service can intensify when the dependency level on a medium is high (Ball-Rokeachn, 1985). Other researches have alluded to other behavioral aspects, including political perceptions (Halpern, 1994), voting decisions (Davies, 2009), and emotional expressions following a critical situation (Lee, 2012). Thus, the degree of media dependency can further influence individuals’ behaviors.

Media dependency theory has assumed that as individuals intensify their dependency relationship with a specific message, the more likely the message effects their cognitions, feelings, and behaviors (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976; Merskin, 1999). That is, an individual’s effort to remove a sense of ambiguity contributes to developing attitudes and feeling that can turn into the need to take action. As Hindman and Coyle (1999) noted, individual dependency on radio during flood disaster increased and then influenced people’ sense of community unification and volunteers activities. Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur (1976) claimed that media information that tended to support a protest for women’ rights might stimulate people to engage in the protests.

For their potential for broad information dissemination, social media platforms are an important tool for engaging in societal activities. Because media dependency theory seeks to understand the asymmetric dependencies among people and media systems, it seems applicable for an examination of the impact of new communication technologies on individuals’ convictions and actions (Ognyanova, & Ball-Rokeach, 2015).

Media dependency theory considers the influence of individual demographics and social factors on the level of media dependency. It assumes that social structure, which is an individual’s status (class, status, power) within a society, indirectly influences both an individuals’ dependency on media and his or her own goal priorities (Ball-Rokeach, 1985). For example, as individuals with a higher socioeconomic status have a greater chance to access information from social institutions like governments and corporations, they should be less dependent on media because they may receive information from other resources. Additionally, research has found that a higher level of education leads to less dependence on media (Loges, 1994). Additionally, age and gender have been proven to determine media dependency. For instance, Lowery (2004) found out that younger audiences depended on media more than older audiences for information after the 9/11 attacks. Further, gender has been seen as a strong predictor of time spent reading online news (Patwardhan & Yang, 2003); males were more likely than female users to read news online.

Other individual factors that have been shown to have a mediating effect on individual relationships with media are psychological factors, the perceived usefulness of media messages, and the credibility of the media source (Ball-Rokeach, 1998). Jackob (2010) pointed out that media use and trust are positively related; therefore, in a time of crisis, trust toward the media is considerably crucial (Bucher, 2002; Hagar, 2013).

Media dependency theory often seems more useful as framework to apply to the adoption of new communication technology. It draws attention to the relationship in which producers of media control information that media users seek so as to understand and act in their environments, and its central questions about dependency relationships can be adapted for the digital age (Ball-Rokeach & Jung, 2009). With the development of new communication technologies, micro media dependency relationships have become more diverse because media consumers are actively able to play roles in the production and dissemination of information (Loges & Jung, 2001). Hence, media dependency theory can be applied to examine the present study’s assumptions that aim to understand individuals’ dependency on both traditional and social media during terrorist attacks.

According to Baran and Davis (2012), media dependency theory has provided meaningful explanations in several assertions. First, the media’s influence lies in the relationship between the social system, the media’s power, and audience’s relationships to media. In other words, the media’s influence on individuals exists because of the interrelated relationship between media, audience and social system. Second, the degree of audience reliance on media information helps explain the reasons why media messages shift audience beliefs or behavior. Third, the world becomes more complex, more individuals need the media to assist them in evaluating and managing different situations. Finally, the stronger the dependency on media, the greater the effect media messages will have on audiences (Baran & Davis, 2012). These assertions address the nature of the relationship between media, society, and individuals, and they provide evidence of the usefulness of adoption of media dependency theory, especially with the widespread use of the new communication technologies.

Media system dependency theory seems to be the most conducive to understand Saudis’ media dependency during a terrorist attack. This theory assumes that individuals become more dependent on media for information when there is an increase in uncertainty, and this is especially true during a terrorist activity. In this context, media sources are more likely to have effects because they have valuable information that people want to access (Nabi & Oliver, 2009). Media dependency is assumed to be a function of degree of perceived threat from a crisis (Lowrey, 2004). Several communication studies, thus, have adopted this theory to examine the relationship between media and users during various types of crises.

The theory is also suitable for this study because it points out that individual people might be more reliant on specific media for information in times of change or when there is an expansion in uncertainty (Ball-Rokeach, 1998; Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976), which can occur in time of a terrorist attack. Moreover, Ball-Rokeach (1985) proposed that an individual’s dependency on the media system is influenced more by structural dependency than by personal characteristics. In other words, it is quiet possible that media consumers change their media dependency if they find a particular media form is not able to satisfy their needs. Kim et al. (2004) demonstrated that the nature of the crisis influences the audience’s choice of which medium they rely more to receive information. Moreover, it helps explains media changes because it obviously sees society and media grow and change (Ball-Rokeach, 1989). Media dependency theory, thus, is particularly relevant to communication that occurs during a terrorist attack.

According to Jackob (2010), media dependency theory indicates that “ the mass media are most powerful in times when the mainstream media system either controls information resources that are not otherwise available to the public or when alternative media are missing” (p. 591). This perspective can be more visible in a society such as Saudi Arabia in which the government operates the media system and decides how and what information is gathered and disseminated.


This review of literature will focus on themes related to this research that will seek to understand the individuals’ media dependency on both traditional and social media by Saudis during terrorist attacks. Because of a lack of research with a specific focus on Saudi dependency on media in terrorist attacks, this literature review looks at studies conducted in other societies and discussed a variety of communication crises.

Media Dependency and Media Type

When it comes to the topic of media dependency during crisis, a substantive body of communication research will readily agree that traditional media play profound roles in helping people during critical events (Littlefield & Quenette, 2007; Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer, 2003). While this concept generally seems to be established, however, there is new era of research emerging on social media platforms. A shift has occurred regarding the emergence of new communication technologies. As a matter of fact, the rapid growth of new communication technologies and the appearance of other new communicative forms, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat, have allowed users to quickly access news stories and share them with others, empowering users to be more informative and active rather than being only receptive to media news.

The growing popularity of social media platforms as an effective tool facilitating a variety of communication and information sharing creates competition with traditional media. By extension, online communication is an innovation that allows users to access news in real time and become active users of podcasts and other new media stories. Thus, it seems important to understand the role of social media in shifting traditional media dependency at the time of terrorist attacks and to understand factors that have potential consequences on individuals’ media dependency during such incidences. Furthermore, there is a need to examine the ability of social media dependency on civic participation, which might lead to a stable society in crisis events.

Traditional Media Dependency during Crisis

Despite the fact that new communication technologies are becoming increasingly essential information communication sources, television is still a primary source for many people, and it can bring a series of beneficial and harmful effects to society. Steele (1992) indicated that, compared with all other media, television is considered the most popular information and entertainment source. Some media scholars presume that TV works as a drug that has a considerable influence on audience behavior, resulting in full-blown addiction (Sparks, 2013). For example, Ostrov, Gentile, and Crick (2006) reported children who have higher levels of exposure to on-screen violence conducted different types of aggressions, including physical, relational, and verbal aggression. During crises, traditional media have been adopted to effectively receive and disseminate information and follow the advice and guidance of local officials.

In a time of crisis, traditional media news stories, particularly on TV, respond to the people’s need to make sense of the situation. Thus, TV can meet audiences’ information and emotional needs. Unlike other communication methods, TV produces news combined with sounds and moving images. Adkisson (2013) sought to determine how traditional and social media are useful during weather-related crisis situations. The study was mainly concerned about African Americans with relatively higher income and educational levels. Adkisson found that respondents relied more on traditional media for receiving information during weather-related crisis situations. Piotrowski and Armstrong (1998) conducted a study aiming to understand where people sought information about Hurricane Danny.

The findings showed that the majority of participants considered television and radio to be effective communication tools during the hurricane. Participants found television information especially valuable because it allowed them to have visual imagery about the incident, which provides much dramatic effect. Interestingly, TV allows people to delve deeper and learn more about a variety of stories through its daily programs and coverage. Therefore, even though people learned about the 9/11 attacks from multiple sources of information, many Americans turned to TV looking for more detailed information (Carey, 2003).

In a study conducted to understand the media use and attitudes in American society, 50% of the respondents received information about the 9/11 terrorist attacks from television, and 9 out of 10 respondent considered TV news coverage to be valuable (Stempel III & Hargrove, 2002). Along the same line, Gordon (2009) applied media dependency theory to understand media use across two different critical situations (Hurricanes Katrina & Gustav). Gordon reported that television news was the most important information source for many people to obtain knowledge of the situations. This finding appears consistent with other studies that suggest that television is perceived as the most valuable information tool during a crisis (Hirschburg et al., 1986).

Greenberg, Hofschire, and Lachlan (2002) examined the importance of media and interpersonal communication in the information exchange used for managing a crisis. They found a majority of respondents highlighted the television as the most important information source for receiving information about the 9/11 attacks. During and following crisis situations, the public’s motivations for media consumption vary. For example, Boyle et al. (2004) found that a negative emotional response was a strong predictor of an individual’s efforts to learn about 9/11. Rogers (2003) conducted a study aiming to understand the television channels respondents used to receive information about the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as how the respondents first knew and how the news event affected them.

The findings showed that the terrorist attacks drove people to pursue more details regarding the severity of the attacks, the number killed, and the identity of the attackers. Moreover, television (32%) and radio (27%) were the most important news source from which the respondent first heard about the attacks.

According to media dependency theory, television has been a useful and essential communication source during crisis situations. When individuals feel their social and natural environment is threatening, this dependency relationship becomes highly intensive (Loges, 1994). According to Hirshburg et al. (1986), dependency on TV news increases during a crisis for goals of self- and social understanding. Additionally, they found that although TV and radio news did not immediately serve to reduce uncertainty, people relied on them as important information sources. Thus, Lowrey (2004) emphasized the role of television during national crises. He assumed selecting TV as the information source in a crisis is not the result of habit, but because TV embraces some vital important qualities, such as immediacy and incorporation of visual and textual symbols, that help audiences to create a larger picture about an event.

Social Media Dependency during Crisis

Since the rise of social media platforms, many scholars have placed high expectations on the potential of these platforms to promote effective communication dialogue during crisis events (Kryvasheyeu, Chen, Moro, Van Hentenryck, and Cebrian, 2015). According to Brown, Basil, and Bocarnea (2003), new communication technologies offer people the gateway into the world of information resources with a great opportunity to express their feelings, share ideas, and even ask others for assistance. Along the same lines, Lee (2012) conducted a study to examine the impact of YouTube in supporting emotional expressions following the death of Michael Jackson.

The study analyzed YouTube video content and showed people relied on YouTube to meet a cluster of needs; YouTube significantly helped users express emotion such as sadness, grief, anger, and frustration over the unfavorable media coverage of Jackson. On the other hand, some YouTube users expressed positive emotions such as happiness about his music and its impact in society.  Grubmüller, Götsch, and Krieger (2013) stated that:

Web2.0 technologies offer a wide range of possibilities for engagement, participation, communication and collaboration as they allow each and every individual with Internet access to publish, share or edit comments, postings, videos, photos etc. This implies new possibilities of interaction, diverse news and opinions, engagement in the form of one-to- one, one-to-many and many-to-many communications. (p. 2)

Due to their enhanced interactivity features, social media enable users to be more active as they go online. In other words, by adopting social media, users can communicate with others and share ideas and information. In fact, social media can effectively facilitate the development of social networks (Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll, and Rosson, 2005). Theses networks are important during critical situations. In Coombs’ view (2012), social media have established a new style of interactive communication, which is word of mouth, in which individuals share information freely and instantly.

For instance, Macias, Hilyard, and Freimuth, (2009) analyzed some blogs posted by official meida sources and personal blogs focusing on New Orleans and the two weeks following Hurricane Katrina. The study sought to examine the blogs’ risk and crisis communication functions during the period following Hurricane Katrina. The findings showed that the use of blogs opened an opportunity for communication, political information and helping, such as providing rescue needs and information and assistance for fostering community. Similarly, Mazer et al. (2015) found that the use of social media increased the conversation between parents’ and students’ posts during and after two active shooter events. New communication technology presented in a reactive way has more positive influence on participants’ affective media system dependency.

Social media’s role is not only limited to support communication efforts, but also help stimulate activities during crisis. Palen and Liu (2007) investigated some aspects of citizens’ communicative activity during and following two critical moments in U.S history: September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina. They found that the use of information communication technologies (ICT) in these disasters served to increase public participation. They identified three different areas through which ICT motivate citizen participation. The first is communication within the community affected by a crisis. The second type of communication is concerned about interaction between the public who are affected by the crisis and those outside of it. Finally, the information process between authorities and the public was a two-way information exchange rather than only flowing one way. Because new communication technologies have transformed how public communicate with others, people are optimistic about the power of social media, especially during critical events.

In the context of terrorist attacks, new communication technologies are becoming a vital information source for many people. New communication technologies, however, are used not only for information seeking but also for sharing information with others who are also concerned about the incidents. Ishengoma (2014) analyzed the specific use of online social networks during terrorist attacks in developing countries. He found that the number of tweets was high during the first critical moments during terrorist attacks. Similarly, Lee, Agrawal and Rao (2015) explained that tweets diffused more if they were sent immediately after a terrorist attack. This study noted that tweets were diffused to many more users if they did not include a hashtag than if they did. Increased communicative activities during terrorist attacks can be attributed to greater worry of its potential consequences on personal welfare (Greenberg et al., 2002).

As social media increasingly become an important tool for risk communication, in particular during terrorist attacks, police and government agencies adopt social media platforms to communicate with the public (Simon et al., 2014). Delivering effective communication is especially crucial during a crisis. Thus, through adopting new communication technologies, authorities are attempting to receive public support for their constant efforts in tackling with emergency incidences. For instance, at the time of the Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya, which resulted in 67 fatalities and 175 wounded, all emergency-related organizations and officials actively used their available online accounts to communicate with the public and among themselves during the crisis (Simon et al., 2014). Meanwhile, Twitter users used Twitter to respond to securitization announcements, including the authorities’ announcements, responsibility for circulating misinformation about the event, and the issue of ethnicity and blame (Rasmussen, 2015).

Additionally, new communication technologies can be a better communication tool for receiving recovery efforts. Therefore, according to the American Red Cross survey, the majority of respondents believed that they would receive rescue shortly after posting a request through social media (American Red Cross, 2010). Starbird and Palen (2011) found that Twitter was a main vehicle by which volunteers engaged during the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Hashtags significantly played a key role in finding necessary information and filtering information about affected area as well.

Some scholars assume that people pay more attention to social media news rather than traditional media during a crisis (Stephens & Malone 2009). To obtain crisis communication, individuals communicate with each other via accessible social media rather than traditional media. In fact, many factors have been proven to be especially important in relying on new communication technologies in time of crisis. For instance, when authorities delay providing necessary information, social media become a primary information source (Sutton et al. 2008). Thus, social media will become more prominent as traditional media are banned from reporting incidents (Mäkinen & Kuira, 2008). Additionally, social media provide people with a prominent opportunity to engage in two-way dialogue and communication (Bortree, & Seltzer, 2009).

Perception of Threat and Media Dependency

During a time of crises, information is a critical matter because many people could experience ambiguity and feel their lives are at risk. Ambiguity can be found in a situation in which individuals are not able to access the information source to understand threats and develop a clear image about it (Nabi & Oliver, 2009). Therefore, communication research has indicated that feelings of threats and ambiguity lead to increased media dependency during crises (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach, 1989; Lowery, 2004; Robertsoon, 2009). When tragic situations occur, people with high emotional reactions to these situations are more likely than other normal people to share their feelings with others  (Boyle, et al. 2004). However, during crisis situations, understanding and orientation goals are often met by different types of media (Hirshburg, et al., 1986; Loges, 1994; & Lowrey, 2004).

Loges (1994) suggested that threat had not been defined statistically. He suggested that threat has three dimensions: danger, conjecture, and personal vulnerability. Danger refers to the exposure to harm: threat is often associated with negative outcomes on individuals. Conjecture is an essential component for threat: it refers to a guess based on uncertain probabilities- people are threatened by what they think may occur. Personal vulnerability, then, refers to how individuals feel they are personally exposed to the threat if others are exposed to such thing.

Given the increasingly important role the media play in disseminating information during crises, people become more dependent on news in the media (Avery, 2010). However, channel choice varies in times of critical situations. Hu and Zhang (2014) conducted a study to examine communication channel usage and patterns and their effects on health knowledge during the 2009 H1N1 crisis in China. The findings showed that channel choice, especially mobile phone and interpersonal communication, plays a different role during different levels of threat. In contrast with Lowery’s (2004) suggestion that heightened threat contributes to an increase in the use of word-of-mouth communication, Hu and Zhang (2014) stated that when the level of external threat was high, interpersonal communication was less important because family, friends, and colleagues lack authoritative information or knowledge about the disease.

Because crisis events cause a wide state of confusion and uncertainty within society, information seeking becomes a high priority for many people seeking to reduce fears and understand the situation, which in turn leads to increased reliance on the media news (Lowery, 2004). Hirschburg et al. (1986) found that after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, media use surged as residents actively attempted to obtain information that was necessary to get a better understanding of their physical environment. Using the lens of media dependency theory, Loges (2004) aimed to examine whether higher levels of threat perception heighten media dependency relationships.  The findings suggested that when the perception of threat in the environment is higher, the intensity of media system dependency relationship increases. In addition, perceptions of threat were strongly linked to exposure to television for self-understanding and action orientation motivations. Consequently, micro media system dependency theory assumes that media messages are considered more effective when audiences have a greater dependency on media messages.

Influence of Credibility on Media Dependency

According to Goldsmith, Lafferty, and Newell (2000), credibility is “the extent to which the source is perceived as possessing expertise relevant to the communication topic and can be trusted to give an objective opinion on the subject” (p. 43). Source credibility is playing a very important role in personal positive attitudes and can change behavior (Jin & Sung, 2010). It has been argued that trust in media contributes to media use (Tsfati & Cappella, 2003) because individuals’ perceptions of media credibility are positively linked to their attitudes toward the medium (Rimmer & Weaver, 1987). More importantly, when an individual considers a medium as a credible information source, he or she is more likely to become reliant on it for receiving information (Bucy, 2003).

With the emergence of the Internet, issues of credibility are becoming a matter of great concern (France, 1999; Tucher, 1997). Johnson & Kaye (1998) posited that a lack of trust in online information leads users to pay less attention to its news and rate it as a less credible news source. The continued growth of the Internet as a popular form for seeking information for personal computer users has stimulated scholars’ attention to compare the credibility of new media with traditional media (Metzger, Flanagin, Eyal, Lemus, & McCann, 2003). However, there are mixed findings regarding which medium is perceived more credible. While some scholars have argued that traditional media are more credible than social media, other researchers consider social media to be more trustworthy than traditional media

 For instance, the Internet was found as a favorite information source over traditional media news, including books, magazines, newspapers or face-to-face communication (Flanagin & Metzger, 2001). Johnson and Kaye (1998) found that Internet users viewed online political information sources as more credible than traditional media news. Johnson and Kaye (2004) examined the credibility of blogs compared with traditional media and other online sources. The result showed that approximately three-quarters of respondents rated blogs as more credible information sources because they offer users more depth and thoughtful analysis than other information sources (Johnson & Kaye, 2004).

When it comes to crises, prior research has found that people pay more attention to different news sources, either from traditional media or social media, in emergency situations (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006). Castillo, Mendoza, and Poblete (2011) indicated that people rated traditional media news as a credible source, while headlines on Twitter were perceived to be less credible. In contract, Bates and Callison (2008) found that heavy social media users consider social media to be more credible during a time of crisis. Austin, Fisher, Liu, and Jin (2012) found that participants’ evaluations of traditional media’s credibility led them to rely on these sources during crisis.

Additionally, on social media, users’ social responsibility levels are believed to be affected by on information sharing behavior during crisis. Thomson and Ito (2012) investigated Twitter users’ behavioral responses to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and found that the majority of participants viewed credibility as an important factor for Twitter information when it comes to sharing information. Social media users closest to the affected area were viewed by Twitter users as having a high degree of social responsibility regarding crisis-related information and thus viewed Twitter as a more credible source. Hence, when people consider a medium to be credible, they use it during a crisis for receiving and sharing information as well wither users

Media dependency research has recognized the interrelated relationship between reliance on media and trust. Jackob (2010) assumed that “dependency on certain media may lead individuals to trust them, and the media in turn can exert control over the information that is necessary for its consumers to understand their environment and to act in it” (p. 594). It is important, however, to note that because governments in authoritarian regimes are in charge of providing support and resources to mainstream media, they have control over the media content the public relies on. The government’s oversight with media operations may also influence media credibility. For example, Johnson and Abdulrahim (2000) found that Internet users in the Arab world rated the Internet as a more credible communication tool because traditional media news is subject to the government’s power. This conclusion aligns with Tsfati and Cappella’s (2003) assumption that people consume more news if they trust a medium; otherwise, they will seek an alternative medium to receive news. However, while Greer (2003) suggested that the more people who use the Internet more rate online information as more credible, Johnson and Kaye (2002) found that reliance on the Internet did not predict the perceived credibility of online sources.

Media Dependency and Demographic Information

Although few studies have paid attention to the relationship between social context and media dependency (Morton & Duck, 2000), some earlier media studies suggested that individuals differ in their motivation when it comes to media consumption, including surveillance, entertainment, and social learning (Donohew, Palmgreen, and Rayburn, 1987). Like many communication theories, media dependency theory has emphasized the role of an individual’s physiological factors on media dependency. Ball-Rokeach (1985) pointed out that macro factors and individuals’ social psychological factors influence the structure of individual media dependency. For example, structural location, such as class, status, and power, impacts media dependency (Ball-Rokeach, 1985). Additionally, Loges (1994) found that some demographic variables affect media dependency. For instance, demographic variables such as lower ages, less education, and non-White ethnicity strongly determined radio dependency relations. It is important to note that the influence of demographic variables on media dependency varies from one medium to another; for instance, age and gender seemed more related to magazines for all goals except the social understanding goal.

Media dependency research has showed that age and educational levels have a mediating effect on an individual’s media dependency (Mafé, & Blas, 2006; Morton, & Duck, 2000). Loges and Ball-Rokeach (1993) proposed that people who are older, better educated, more affluent, and better established in their communities are more likely to seek an understanding goal from media. Mafé and Blas (2006) conducted a study to examine the main factors of Internet dependency and motivations for shopping online. Findings indicated that Internet dependent users were young and highly educated people who felt a sense of belonging to the Internet. A possible explanation is that individuals increase their relationship with a medium as they feel familiar with it and appreciative of its benefits (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Mcmellon & Schiffman, 2000).

In addition to age and educational level, gender has also proven to influence how an individual perceives and communicates with media (Ledbetter, 2009). Strano (2008) suggested that females engaged with social networking sites more than males. However, the educational level may influence gender in using communication channels. For example, although Ha, Yoon, and Zhang (2013) found that female gender was not an important factor in use of social network sites for the general resident sample, it was found to be an important predictor in the college student sample. Additionally, gender affects emotional expression, especially during mournful situations (Lee, 2012).

Relying on media dependency theory and the microeconomic consumption theories, Ha, et al. (2013) investigated the level of dependency on social network sites among youth and the general population. The findings showed that college students were drawn to social network sites for information and they ignored other non-online communication sources.  Similarly, Jones, Garfin, Holman, and Silver, (2016) found age differences in media use during the week following the Boston Marathon bombings. While older aged people preferred traditional media, younger people were more connected to social media. Morton and Duck (2000) conducted a study that examined the impact of media dependency on social identity among gay people, seeking to understand whether media dependency among this population affects their likelihood to engage in safer sex. The findings showed that media dependency has both a direct and indirect influence on the perception of gay community norms.

Social Media and Civic Engagement during Terrorist Attacks

Especially important to consider how social media influence a society’s online and offline engagement during a terrorist attack. Unlike traditional media, social media have gained currency in facilitating civic engagement. One explanation is that traditional media are not able to provide their users with urgent information instantaneously (Shklovski, Palen, & Sutton, 2008). On the other hand, new communication information sources allow people to know about events occurring around them (Ahmed & Sinnappan, 2013), which could be an influential trigger that promotes public participation in a time of crisis. Dutta (2006) and Kim et al. (2004) found that the 9/11 attacks stimulated intense and widespread online and offline civic engagement. Both online and offline engagement have underscored the magnitude of this attack that shook the history of America and threatened its core social stability. A study between Internet connectedness and communicative responses found that Americans increased their dependency on the Internet during and after the attack whether they had an Internet connection or not (Kim, et al., 2004).

Putnam (1995) noted that most non-Internet connectors in America were not active in their civic involvement prior to an attack and cited specific diverse communicative choices at the core of this declining involvement. However, the opposite happened in the case where the society faced a stressful situation such as a terrorist attack. During an attack, non-Internet connectors use offline platforms that act as a source of storytelling resources in the community and influence their levels of civic engagement (Kim et al., 2004 p. 616). Internet provides a platform where people can express their interpersonal concern and support to the victims. Wellman et al. (2001) found that heavy Internet use is positively associated with civic participation, including engagement in voluntary organizations and politics.

Crises often stimulate a wide range of organized societal activities designed to get assistance for those in need. Following the 9/11 attacks, the public engaged in various forms of civic actions like placing American flags on their vehicles, praying for the victims in religious gatherings, and donating blood (Rainie & Kalsnes, 2001, p.15). Services such as support required by community organizing, solidarity-building efforts, and assistance actions like providing financial help were useful during the period following the attacks. Task forces, emergency support functions, and urban search and rescue are crucial forms of offline engagement that provide more personal intervention during an attack.

High Internet connectedness has acted as a cure for the declining civil engagement that Putnam (1995) noticed, opening new avenues for creating relationships, cementing cohesiveness in the society, and tapping into the interrelated networks within the society (Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001). The engagement of this social capital is highly manifested during terrorist attacks. High Internet connectors have shaped and reshaped the connections of the community to various media forms and other people after a crisis (Kim et al., 2004 p. 612).

In particular, web sites have been seen to be a more active, quick, and efficient platform that facilitates a wide range of perspectives and that fosters community building both locally and internationally. The Internet boosts the creation of image archives, more accounts via blogs or personal sites, and online groups (Foot & Schneider, 2004). After the September 11 attacks, most Americans web producers responded by backing mirrors of news sites to assist Americans’ access to breaking news and postings that provided guidance on handling emotional distress the attacks.

One article posted shortly after the attacks asserted that most New Yorkers and other people globally had created personal web sites and were using e-mail accounts, and chat applications to check with each other and offer messages of condolence to the victims and family members (Olsen, 2001). She also reported that most New York businesses affected by the attacks opted for corporate web sites to give responses on the status of their staffs. Accordingly, online information can create positive consequences on the development of community social capital including civic participation, which is vital to advance stability within an unsteady society. Procopio and Procopio (2007) examined the role of the Internet in supporting a geographically based community during Hurricane Katrina. The findings showed that the majority of respondents valued the role of the Internet to maintain geographic community more than any other communication means. The Internet helped people learn valuable information regarding how to rebuild their homes. Meanwhile, it allowed people communicate with relatives and friends and keeping them updated about their statuses. Thus, the Internet is a significant, powerful toll in sustaining a society in time of crisis.


Crisis situations increase the need for information. Media dependency research has indicated that during times of ambiguity, individuals tend to become more dependent on media news. Mass media play a major role in enhancing individuals’ situational awareness. The emergence of social media has contributed to changes in the nature of the relationship between individuals and media during a crisis. In the past, mass media circulated news and information to the public, and social media have allowed people to communicate and collaborate with each other in two effective methods of communication that they have never experienced. Thus, social media are not only used for seeking information, as traditional media are, but they also facilitate sharing information and generating new content. To put it succinctly, the development of new media has helped generate active media consumers who are able to publish and share comments on an issue, which is important in a time of dispersion and crisis.

However, the literature shows mixed findings regarding the outcomes of social media reliance during crises. While some research admires the positive implications regarding providing updated information and allowing interactive communication for their users, others have argued that social media can make a crisis more complicated because of their ability to increase rumors and widespread inaccurate information, which can influence society’s and individuals’ assessment and reliance on these new media in the time of emergency situations. Thus, traditional media maintain their presence in individuals’ preference as a vital information source.

The research of reliance on media during terrorist attacks has not received sufficient attention from scholars. Additionally, there is a lack of studies that seek to understand whether social media platforms are powerful enough to challenge the status of traditional media, in particularly in regards to terrorist attacks. More importantly, the majority of media dependency studies on crisis events have been conducted in Western societies where traditional media news works in an open and democratic environment, which allows the media to discuss any topic, including critical issues, without fearing government censorship. However, the few studies that investigated media dependency in times of crisis provide a new avenue for future studies.

The interdependence and interpenetration of Internet connectedness and community engagement is embodied in the fact that both can potentially contribute to mutually sustaining impacts manifested by the presence of online support and its intervention in a society (Ball-Rokeach & Hoyt, 2001; Baym, 1995). Similarly, high Internet connectors are more likely to participate actively in online engagement and other civic actions in response to a terrorist attack compared with low and non-Internet connectors. Civic actions are driven by the intervention of both forms of social media engagement to reach out to the society during and after an attack (Kim et al., 2004 p. 627). Equally important, because of the rate at which technology has been integrated into the society, individuals who were not high Internet connectors after the attacks were also less likely to engage in non-Internet connections.

Media dependency during the time of terrorism is a relevant research topic, and more research is required to reinforce the theory. Given the increasingly important role social media performs in distributing information during a crisis, it is important to explore the implications of new media on individuals’ media dependency during such incidents. Moreover, because media dependency theory assumes that individual dependency on the media system is largely shaped by the interdependent relationship between the media and other social systems, it is crucial to examine this relationship in developing countries. Hence, the gap in the literature can be filled by focusing on the public’s media dependency during terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Hypotheses and Research Questions

H1. During terrorist attacks, individuals depend more on social media than traditional media.

H2. Perception of threat is positively related to the intensity of social media dependency.

H3: The perceived medium as a credible news source will predict individual media dependency during a terrorist attack.

H4: An individual’s socioeconomic status (age, gender, and education) is positively correlated to media dependency.

Q1. Does social media dependency lead to online civic engagement during terrorist attacks?

Q2. Does social media dependency lead to offline civic engagement during terrorist attacks?

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