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.
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On the Purpose of Journalism

During the past year or so, I’ve taken to throwing two questions at my mass media, and especially my journalism, students. The first question – well, maybe it’s the communication studies specialist in me, but I want them to start thinking about the weight of the words they use and the reality of them, so I ask them to define something that’s at the heart of what we study. So often we see words and phrases tossed around, assuming we know generally what we’re talking about, but sometimes, we really need to stop and ask ourselves what we’re saying.

“What does ‘the media’ refer to?” I ask, and they respond with the usual laundry list of “newspapers, magazines, TV shows, Internet.”

“But I don’t mean just the forms of media. What do we mean when we say ‘It’s the media’s fault,’ or ‘The media never gets it right’?”

“It means the news; people who talk about the news,” they say, but now they’re not sure about what I’m asking. So I clarify.

“So you’re saying that you equate, say, Rush Limbaugh with, oh, I don’t know – Scott Pelley? Lester Holt? And the National Enquirer with the New York Times, or your soft rock radio station news with NPR? These are all ‘media.’ Are they all getting it equally wrong?”

Then they start to see what I’m asking. We start parsing it out a bit better. We talk about those stations or channels or publications that are trying a little harder than others, but which may still not be doing it quite right, and those that have definite political slants and aren’t afraid to use them. And I talk with them a little about what drives the news, now and historically, and while they weakly talk about the need to inform the public, they also know that the financial bottom line is really what drives a lot of content.

Those of us who have studied journalism know the history of it. We can pretty well explain how Gutenberg’s press brought about so many cultural changes, but among them was a rise in commerce, in capitalism. We know that the penny press succeeded largely because of advertisers, and that magazines – especially those aimed at women – were not so much for the benefit of the magazinists to have a place to put their writings, but rather for the corporations with products to sell, who needed the audience of consumers that these publications could offer with their broad, nationwide circulations.

And in all that history, we learn, and we continue to teach, the story of the Fourth Estate that serves to oversee the actions of the three branches of government. There’s nobility in that; we talk about providing a space for the public to discuss important issues, and to provide that public with the information it needs to keep our democracy running.

We talk, too, about how our two world wars helped pull us at least somewhat away from the era of yellow journalism and more toward the investigative side of reporting, with the muckrakers helping expose and bring down corruption.

Finally, we tell them about the Hutchins Commission of the 1940s, and of social responsibility theory (a nice overview of this is at http://pressinamerica.pbworks.com/w/page/18360200/Hutchins%20Commission). It’s all about democracy, we say. It’s about objectivity and being honest and finding the real stories.

What’s interesting of late, however, is that a study came out less than a year ago that puts a bit of a kink in things, and folks have been talking about it. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” came out in the September 2014 issue of the journal Perspectives on Politics [12(3): 564–581], and in it, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University determined that “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” (abstract).

In other words, the United States is no longer a democracy; we’re now an oligarchy (and Citizens United doesn’t exactly dispel this theory).

This, then, is the second question I ask my students: “If the U.S. is no longer truly a democracy, does objective, unbiased journalism serve any real purpose in our country?” (I’ll get to the question of the possibility of “objective” or “unbiased” news in a future post.)

For the most part, I’ve gotten a lot of push-back from the students on this one. They believe the news is still important and that it tells us things we need to know (though I’d note that the concepts of gatekeeping, agenda-setting, or framing never enter the conversation unless I toss them in).

But aside from those who are a little lost about politics in general (I had a student once who described the political spectrum of beliefs as the left side being communists, the right being fascists, and the middle being liberal . . . which in some ways might be more insightful than I gave this student credit for), I have found this question to be a good one to get them thinking about what the news provides them, and how finances have such a strong influence over both the watchers and the watched.

If I can get them thinking, even a little, about the connections among the citizens, the news sources, the government, and money, I count that class as a win. And it’s encouraging to occasionally run across an article to tell the students about that’s like the one the Columbia Journalism Review just posted on February 11 with the title “Virginia lawmakers blame the media for forcing them to pass ethics reform” (http://preview.tinyurl.com/o7k435n).

I guess “the media” still gets a few things right.