Creating A Culture Of Fear Through The Stories We Tell

Remember I promised to post about the culture of fear... well here you go! Feel free to share your comments with me!

According to the book, “The Culture of Fear” by Barry Glassner three out of four Americans say they feel more afraid today than they did twenty years ago. Glassner writes of how journalists perpetuate a culture of fear through their work and stories, by over-exaggerating dangers that are not truly imminent dangers to the general public. But is this really true and is there a way, we as journalists, can try and limit creating these fears?

In a newscast of NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams I observed, I rarely found any story that would perpetuate unjustifiable fears in viewers. Below I describe the newscast and its contents; a newscast I feel all stations should try and emulate to help prevent creating cultures of fear.

The newscast began with a story about the state of American politics. Although mostly non-fear driven, there were a few phrases I feel, and I believe Glassner would feel, could create a culture of fear among the public. The writers labeled the nation, “America the angry” and stated, “On Thursday night, what should have been a staged political debate turned into a fight night in Vegas. Audience members broke into a physical scuffle, trading punches…” These statements could make it seem the entire nation is an uproar about politics, and people are getting into fights everywhere just because of it. But this is clearly, by my observances, not true. Glassner writes, “Fear mongers have knocked the optimism out of us by stuffing us full of negative presumptions about our fellow citizens and social institutions.” This is exactly what happened in that story. I feel if I ever face a story like this one I would carefully choose the words I decide to use. I would not sensationalize to the point that will cause the public unneeded fears. I would also stay away from labeling, such as “America the angry,” and shining negative thoughts upon things that aren’t truly negative. However, I do not feel journalists should tone down the truth of the story just for the sake of not trying to create a culture of fear.

In the next story about the American hiker released from an Iranian prison, the reporter talks about how Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with her and how compassionate he was towards her. They could have spent more time with the two people held hostage and created a fear about perpetuating a stereotype that Iran is filled with a bunch of terrorists, but they didn’t.

In another story, however, about how Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook, is awarding a $100 million grant to the Newark, New Jersey school district, a soundbite grabbed my attention. Zuckerburg created a deal with the mayor, saying the city must raise $100 million in matching funds and raise $50 million for disadvantaged kids. After this is said, Derrell Bradford from the Excellent Education for Everyone is quoted as saying, “If they fail, every foundation, every mayor, every governor is going to look at this as proof of why this will never work and it may never happen again.” A soundbite like this, from a so-called expert, could perpetuate a fear if this truly does fail we may never see a grant like this again. Glassner even writes, “Fear mongers make their scares all the more credible by backing up would-be experts’ assertions with testimonials from people the audience will find sympathetic.” The reporter should look for a soundbite from Bradford providing information about how the grant will work and let the public judge for themselves whether it can work or not. The reporter should also allow the public to make a decision, if they believe the grant won’t work, if it will destroy all future grants like this one.

There are many ways to combat these types of fear cultivating stories. Suggestions I would make: take watch in what you write, include the facts and solid numbers and don’t over sensationalize a story. Be careful whom you decide to interview and what soundbites you decide to use. While looking for stories to cover, make sure you do not overlook stories you feel are too overdone.

As Glassner writes, “I point out dangerous trends that have been around for a while and are thus viewed as old news and unappealing to the media. Motor vehicle injuries, for example, are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for children ages one to fifteen…. If a parent is concerned about his or her children, their money is best spent on car seats, smoke detectors, swimming lessons, and bike helmets as opposed to GPS locators and child identification kits. They would hardly know that, however, from watching their local TV news or listening to the hype from advocacy groups.” I urge you, as journalists, to get out and cover these stories; make the public aware of the dangers they should taken precaution of.

In regards to what I have written, I do not agree with everything Glassner talked about in his book. Glassner writes, “Statements of alarm by newscasters and glorification of wannabe experts are two telltale tricks of the fear monger’s trade. In the preceding chapters I pointed out others as well: the use of poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trends, depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangers. If journalists would curtail such practices, there would be fewer anxious and misinformed Americans.”

Isolated incidents, such as school shootings and airplane crashes, are news. They need to be covered. The public needs to know and wants to know about these situations. So although it may seem as if journalists are constantly covering these stories and creating a fear surrounding the problem, journalists just need to remind the public with accurately portrayed facts and figures these are not trends. When creating a culture of fear, what it really comes down to is not the news we cover, but how we cover it.


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