Fear Not . . . Or Maybe We Should?

One of the issues that has been cropping up with increasing frequency in discussions (both online and face-to-face) and that is apparent in news pieces on a daily basis is that just about everything nowadays is a crisis that we, the people, should fear.

Fear forces a lot of emotions and responses, given our very human “fight or flight response”; many of these fears, however, may not be reasonable. The mind doesn’t always bow to the more logical schema of “check it out first before you give into believing that the sky is falling.” [http://bit.ly/1FLKnza for those not familiar with it]

People have their go-to sources when they want to know more about something, but unfortunately, in today’s bottom-line-driven mass media, these online sources (and any variety of gatekeepers) may not want to be too quick to dispel the notion that something is, indeed, wrong, and readers had better keep coming back and checking in to find out the latest about the subject, lest doom and destruction descend upon us all without our even knowing it. Politicians are particularly bad about this, especially during election season. A recent bout of this occurred during the November 2014 midterms, when Ebola was the thing that seemed, from many news sources, to be creeping in across all our borders, being flown in from every country around the world, and even becoming eerily airborne, despite all current knowledge that lends no solid evidence to the argument. CBS News provided a good overview of all the scare tactics being used in campaign ads, and this is a great discussion article: http://cbsn.ws/18etkul.

As I prepared during the past few weeks to write this post, I started saving copies of online articles that dealt with topics that could indeed induce fear in the average reader. In just this short time, without my going too far out of my way to search, my file soon overflowed with news and commentary about a range of topics: Ebola (still!) (http://tinyurl.com/m4yxb3d), Germany’s re-publication of Mein Kampf (http://tinyurl.com/oqep8e7), the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Russia, along with everything else that Russia is doing (http://tinyurl.com/qzvys68; http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/515727.html), the infiltration of the nation’s capital by Muslims (http://bit.ly/1DrR5rI), online tracking/stalking by advertisers (http://tinyurl.com/llksple), stalking and spying by the technology we use in our homes (http://on.11alive.com/1z2SFi8), the al-Shabaab mall attack threats (http://bit.ly/1K5u6vp), our children’s safety at school (http://tinyurl.com/og4zvfa), and anything about ISIS (for example, http://tinyurl.com/lyojgne; http://tinyurl.com/ndsp6ym; http://tinyurl.com/n2x647c). Some of these we probably consider more legitimate than others; some concern us less because they are happening on foreign soil but have overtones of eventually happening to us.

I think publication of “fear” articles is an important topic to broach with students of mass media; it’s not new, and it’s certainly not unique to the U.S. Although in many cases the facts may be true or may be things we need to keep on our collective radar screens, it is also true that often such stories are represented by means of hyperbole that turns the articles into clickbait for sources and websites that need better numbers from their analytics and more revenue from advertisers (and in no way am I trying to belittle what anyone might truly believe here).

I have struggled with how to organize this topic briefly but logically for teachers of mass media, but I think one good way to start is to have the class contribute to decide on a functional definition of “fear” (harder than it sounds, once we get started). David L. Altheide of Arizona State University has done wonderful work on the discourse of fear and media, and I encourage anyone approaching this subject to take a look at his research papers. In his 2009 article “The Columbine Shootings and the Discourse of Fear,”1 he talked about the conflation of fear and terrorism in the U.S., which he said “may be defined as the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the physical and symbolic environment as people define and experience it in everyday life” (p. 1354). In this same paper, he also observed that, “Topics for public interest are creatively manipulated by various claims-makers with self-serving interests. The role of claims-makers, especially government officials, who serve as important news sources and spokespersons for this work, must also be considered” (here he references Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1991 — a clear example being the previously mentioned Ebola scare).2

The way to combat fear would logically be power (the “fight” response); and this takes us further into the philosophical realm, and back to the social construction of reality theory as explored by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their 1967 book The Social Construction of Reality (Doubleday). These researchers observed that different backgrounds can cause different groups to views situations differently, and these groups place great faith in the “facts” in which they have grounded their lives and understandings of the world. This would strongly affect the fear factor because it helps them obtain power over the situations by being able to define them; as Berger and Luckmann observed, “Those who occupy the decisive power positions are ready to use their power to impose the traditional definitions of reality on the population under their authority.” (p. 121)

And what is this ability and power to define other than what is looked upon as knowledge for that group? Thomas Hobbes’ commentary that “knowledge is power” is appropriate here, and we can then help students to also take a quick dip into Michel Foucault, with his discussions of the relationships between power and knowledge, and how social institutions use the two for societal control. Take here, for example, the rise of the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome, and their insistence that the people come to them for readings of the Bible, rather than reading the Holy Book themselves; this kept the knowledge, and therefore the power, within the Church itself.

Such a discussion of fear in media is fertile ground for exploring a host of other, related concepts for some of the lower-level groups. Here we can ask the students not only to define a gatekeeper’s role, but to consider how bias3 can play into the stories that are released. Is the gatekeeper providing only part of the information, and is he/she doing so for a specific outcome or purpose (perhaps political, financial, or ideological)? How does framing of the story affect the outcome expected by the gatekeeper? Is the gatekeeper releasing only certain aspects of the issue? Closely connected to this but also relevant would again be the agenda-setting theory. When topics that cause fear come up repeatedly in a variety of news sources, we need to take a look at why these sources want the general public to be talking about them. The same questions we asked about gatekeepers we can ask about agenda-setters. Are these power plays with a specific reason to use fear, or are the media genuinely concerned and acting on social responsibility theory?

We also might want students to think about whether the priming effect (see http://tinyurl.com/nj2dkjm for a quick review) plays a role as the gatekeeper determines how the main audience will accept the news. (For example here, we can talk about the current arguments between people who encourage vaccinations for their children and those who reject them; priming, which tells us that people have seen the topic in the news and probably come to the table with their opinions formed, will be ready to look for the arguments and state their sides. This is a great aspect of communication studies to bring up with the topic of vaccinations and fear: Who is primed for fear that lack of vaccinations will spread diseases and put children with weakened immune systems at risk versus who is primed for fear that vaccinations will cause illnesses in children who had none before?)

Finally, one more way to illuminate discussions about fear and media is with George Gerbner and his Mean World Syndrome (which says that people who watch television tend to see the world as much scarier than it really is) and Cultivation Theory, which examines the long-term effects of television on viewers. Myma Oliver, who wrote Gerbner’s news-obit for the LA Times in 2005, quoted the researcher as saying, “’You know, who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior” (http://bit.ly/1FLN5Vj). We might ask students to consider whether the Internet is doing the same.

Regardless of the level of the students we’re teaching, we have a plethora of resources to draw from to get them thinking about the use of fear in our media on a daily basis.

  1. American Behavioral Scientist, June 2009, 52(10): 1354-1370.
  2. Ericson, R. V., Baranek, P. M., & Chan, J. B. L. (1991). Representing order: Crime, law and justice in the news media. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  3. With the word “bias,” I’m going to get on my soapbox about a grammar pet peeve. PLEASE take an extra moment here to teach your students that the word “bias” plays a host of grammatical functions. When they’re using it as a noun, they can say someone “has a bias,” but as an adjective, he or she “is biased.” I see this misused all the time, and it’s a nails-on-the-chalkboard moment for me every time.

Engaging with the Hypodermic Needle Theory

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Every semester, usually in more than one course, I have the opportunity to talk to students about what a grand theory is. I bring up the hypodermic needle theory (see http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/hypodermic-needle-theory for a nice review), also known as the magic bullet theory, regularly as I venture into explaining that no one theory can describe, explain, and predict all human behavior in a tidy package when it comes to media.

This usually ends up with my showing them the usual boxes and arrows, with “sender” sending “message” to “receiver” through “channel,” ending up with some “effect” (the basic 1947 Harold Lasswell depiction). They basically understand why this theory was pretty quickly disproven: “noise” can affect whether a communication is received (the receiver multitasking; the student next to the receiver talking at the same time; the maintenance crew deciding to use the floor-scrubbing machine outside the classroom and drowning out the sound of “sender,” as they seem to do outside my classes no matter what time of day it is or in which building I’m teaching).

But to get deeper into thinking about “limited-effects” perspective in general (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/sciences/sociology/contemporary-mass-media/the-role-and-influence-of-mass-media for a very brief explanation), I’ve found a few recent stories that can help students engage with the topic a little further (but also leave them wondering about the hypodermic needle theory when it comes to kids and certain topics with adults, as you’ll see below).

The first story I’ve been employing happened in June last year, and oddly enough it came up again this morning in my Facebook news feed, after I’d already decided to write about this topic.* The original story was from 2014 (sample of coverage at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/prosecutors-mythological-tale-drove-girls-12-to-stab-friend/). In this piece, I show the students how these two Wisconsin girls attempted to stab to death a friend of theirs because, according to this article, “they were trying to become ‘proxies’ of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends” (more at http://www.people.com/article/slender-man-myth-wisconsin-girls-murder-friend). By committing this crime, the 12-year-olds said, Slender Man would “accept them and let them live with him in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest.”

Sadly, these girls were not unique in their fascination with this mythical man; just three months later, in September, a 14-year-old Florida girl set a fire that destroyed her family’s home (http://abcnews.go.com/US/teen-inspired-slender-man-set-house-fire-police/story?id=25262814). Apparently “she told a detective she was reading an e-book called ‘Soul Eater.’ ‘There’s a part in this book where two characters get into a fight with each other,’ Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference on Thursday. ‘All of a sudden, that clicked something in her mind and she decided she was going to kill her family.’” This article also points out that this girl had been visiting a Slender Man site; “Eddie Daniels of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office told ABC News, ‘It would be safe to say there is a connection to that.’”

Now, to link this back to mass media and the Hypodermic Needle Theory (and no offense intended), I’m certainly not going to take the word of a Pasco Sheriff’s Office representative in asserting that reading Slender Man and fantasy books makes children try to kill their friends and commit acts of arson, but I will say that these stories generate some thoughtful discussion for the students and allow them to poke around in relevant theory and application. They’ve heard the endless arguments about video games “causing” kids to become violent, and how the “Jackass” movie releases resulted in an increase in injuries among people who tried and failed at some of the stunts shown in the movie. The students have formed their opinions about those media, but this is something a little different. In the first place, as I point out, these are girls being violent in a way we don’t usually see with girls. In addition, it’s an online phenomenon. “What’s going on with this?” I ask. Surely upbringing and genetics play a role, but there’s still the concept of a medium playing into it.

The limited-effects perspective allows them a way to link social behaviors with this mediated exposure to violence and, well, creepiness. I talk with them about each person’s unique levels of intelligence and education, their social interactions in their religious communities and their personal political affiliations (or those in which they were reared), and of course their personal relationships with family and friends. This leads us into discussion of the two-step flow theory (http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/) introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign (1944: New York: Columbia University Press). We talk about (at least for the two girls who stabbed their friend) the fact that leaders who find ideas to latch onto do emerge, and they can have a strong influence on their followers; people in public relations depend upon this theory as they figure out new products to sell.

At this point, many students determine that age can indeed have a strong influence on how a young mind can be shaped and forced into believing a communication, whether from a leader or because of a weak set of social or personal affiliations. Clearly psychology plays a part in this, but I usually have to be careful that we don’t stray too far from talk about media communication in these discussions.

But if youth is a factor, as are these personal affiliations, how then, I asked this semester, do we explain the recent Washington Post story entitled, “Sex toy injuries surged after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was published” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/10/sex-toy-injuries-surged-after-fifty-shades-of-grey-was-published/?tid=sm_tw)? This article quoted the Consumer Product Safety Commission as saying that “emergency room care for injuries involving sex toys has approximately doubled since 2007,” and that “Much of that increase happened in 2012 and 2013, following the release of the wildly popular erotic novels in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. And the overwhelming majority of these injuries — 83 percent — require ‘foreign body removals.’”

Books are certainly a mass medium, and adults have the option to accept or reject what they’re reading; what’s up here? Do we have consider correlation versus causation in this study? Or do mediated messages about sex perhaps lower people’s resistance to the messages?

I realize that this topic may not be suitable for all college classrooms here, and again, I’m in no way trying to imply that we need to revisit the magic bullet theory in future research. It is, however, a light and funny way to get the students to revisit their beliefs — to put doubt in their minds so they have to think things through in a new way and realize that the effects of media, like the ripples of a pebble in a lake, can be far-reaching.

* For more recent information on this story, see http://abcnews.go.com/US/slender-man-interrogation-tapes-reveal-shocking-details-alleged/story?id=29117234&cid=fb_abcn_sf

A Bad Week for Journalism

News media has taken several more hits this week, and they’re fairly serious ones. We’ve seen discussions of FOX News’ decision to post the ISIS tape of 26-year-old Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive, and NBC’s Brian Williams’ problems with some mis-rememberings / fabrications of his participation in events past.

I used the first story to broach ethics with my students, and considerations of communication studies and mass comm issues: Are those who share the link to the gruesome murder being complicit in the criminal activities of the Islamic State, or does that link in fact educate the people in our country about how incredibly cruel those fighters are and perhaps spur people to push their Congressional representatives to try to end the reign of terror that ISIS is forcing on the people of the Middle East? I’m teaching two classes of mostly freshmen right now, so they’re not talking a lot, but I think they’re taking in what I’m pointing out. I was also able to use the idea of educating citizens, who then put pressure on their legislators, to show them that this was a current, real-time example of agenda setting in action (conceptual model from McQuail & Windahl (1993) found at http://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Mass%20Media/Agenda-Setting_Theory/). Agenda setting is a concept they struggle with, but by linking it to a current event, I think it makes the theory more understandable.

I also asked them whether they thought that being repeatedly shown images or videos of such cruelty desensitized us as a nation. After all, just a few short months ago, we were reeling from the idea of ISIS militiamen beheading their victims. We were gasping and saying, “Oh my God, they’re chopping people’s heads off,” whereas now, though we still find the act reprehensible, we’re saying, “They cut some more people’s heads off.” That initial shock is already leaving us; now we know what those people are capable of and we’re slightly better “prepared,” if that’s possible, to hear it again; we’re expecting it. By showing these videos, do news sources help further that desensitization? Or is just the act of hearing about it and creating the images and horror in our own minds media enough? And by advertising the cruelty – does this encourage ISIS to move to the next step of videotaping prolonged torture before putting the victims out of their misery?

The second story, about Brian Williams, I’ll have to admit troubles me on a personal level. I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for what I perceived as his professionalism, and I’m again faced with the lesson that we should put no one on pedestals; we’ll always be disappointed. Nevertheless, I talked with my classes about this (“Did he really not remember the event, or was he purposely lying to us?”), and we ended up going off on a short discussion of “false memory syndrome.” I asked them to think about this in their own lives – pictures from our early childhoods and the stories our families tell along with them; do we truly remember these instances, or have other people told us the stories, and because we know we were players, we believe with all our hearts that we remember? What if those storytellers remember the stories incorrectly? And how do we embellish our own stories over time? I hope this was a way for my students to consider that, just as some among us create our own stories that match our egos, other people can hijack our stories and recreate them to a point that we no longer recognize them but still have a desire to claim or reclaim them as our own; media has a way of helping the public take over other people’s stories (just think about the movie stars in entertainment magazines). We need to remain media literate; we have to keep these falsifications and hijackings in mind. Unfortunately, in the end, any of these situations involving such falsehoods, whether intended or not, will be another black mark on the field of journalism that is already suffering a crisis of honesty and accusations of bias. That discussion, however, is for another day.

By the way, I did not and will not offer an opinion about whether Williams was purposely trying to make himself look better with these stories. The fact is, no one will ever know for sure – maybe not even Williams himself. Sometimes just one weak moment, just one little lie, is all it takes to start down that slippery slope. We all select the past events we choose to remember, and the stories about our parts in those events, that allow us to move forward with our egos intact; we can spin our participation into something more than it actually was, telling and retelling it until we truly believe it, or we can underplay it, and others can do the same to us. Truth can be elusive, but for journalists it’s still absolutely necessary to be vigilant about remaining as close to the facts as they can; the public is depending on them.