Fear & Loathing In The Media

Don’t believe what you read.

It’s with great pain that I’m forced to admit many of us have lost our ability to question. We’ve practically buried the Socratic inquiry essential to properly digest the swathes of information we encounter on a daily (and minute-by-minute) basis.

Or perhaps that’s just what the media would have us believe…

As a member on the inside, it’s easy to see how mass media commands the public. It’s a puppeteer holding a puppet with fear in its eyes. The public is too willing to be that puppet, to be cradled by a hand that lies about best intentions while exerting more and more control.

Renegade terrorist cells, mass shootings, hostile immigrants, disease, death…

Our industries of entertainment and news have created an empire devised to scare us into submissive subservience.

David Altheide has been tracing the development of this fear since its indoctrination into our country’s media over four decades ago. He’s an Emeritus Regents Professor in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University who’s written more than 10 books on the subject. A recipient of many awards for his groundbreaking insights, Altheide even inspired the Michael Crichton best-seller State of Fear.

He fills BTR in on where the media went wrong, along with what we can do to make sure we don’t live our lives susceptible to its harmful influences.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): You’ve done an extensive amount of research and writing in regards to fear in the media. When did you first realize that this was something of real importance?

David Altheide (DA): I started studying the news, specifically the media in regards to social control. I began to notice some media topics that would influence what politicians and audience members thought about. A lot of these topics turned out to be stories about crime, drugs, and gangs, and it became apparent that often implicitly notions of fear were involved.

So I began investigating the appearance of the word “fear” and how it was used in a lot of media reports. From that beginning, working with a number of very good students, we began to entertain some notions as to how fear could manifest itself in the entertainment format of news, especially television news. It’s used to attract our attention.

BTR: Tell us a little bit about “media logic,” and how it can factor into mainstream fear mongering.

DA: That’s one of the most critical points. Thirty-five years ago a colleague and I–a brilliant fellow named Robert Snow–started working on this idea of media logic. What we meant by that is the way the media operates and presents information, how it frames stories. It turns out that logic involves a lot of entertainment, and there are many social institutions like sports, politics, religion, and even education, that had already begun to be influenced by that logic.

BTR: They were trying to make things more entertaining.

DA: Exactly. After a while it became clear the media producers themselves had become engrained in this logic. The “logic” is really the grammar of how media operates: the drama, fear, and questioning how to promote audience identification while drawing on their participation.

BTR: How is this accomplished?

DA: One of the ways it’s done is to rely on certain kinds of formats for presenting information. For instance, the format of the sitcom is different from the media broadcast, but both need entertainment to attract audiences. Fear is a key element of entertainment and keeps them watching.

We’re all familiar with it from horror movies and exciting dramas, but what started to get very refined out of the late ‘60s and ‘70s was the use of crime and dread and fear of strangers to attract people to televised news reports.

BTR: How has that language of fear developed during these decades?

DA: I think the biggest change has been flowing out of the foundation and sensational coverage of the threat of danger and crime in the United States, towards families but especially towards children. Our drug wars pushed by the Nixon administration and others since then; the idea that we are being inundated by drugs, and how our young people will be wiped out morally, physically, and mentally by drugs ruining the nation.

Then gangs and random violence became the center point, which spawned a whole host of draconian legislation regarding mandatory sentencing–which we’re only now just backing out of because we can’t afford it anymore.

BTR: From what you’ve written, the ‘80s really spearheaded fear campaigns as we know them today.

DA: Yeah, in the mid-‘80s there was the missing children phenomenon. The notion of “stranger danger,” reports coming out (claims never justified by any evidence, mind you) that millions of children were being abducted by strangers every year, sexually assaulted if not killed. We now know it never was true, the biggest threat to children was running away, being misplaced, or custody disputes stemming from parental abductions. But that fear was carried by news stations all across the country, there were docudramas and movies made about it. Some television news stations even offered to fingerprint and photograph kids to help find them in the future.

This, in turn, spawned efforts from politicians and school systems who wanted to be a part of the game and show that they were being responsive. So they began having education programs in schools, “Stranger Danger,” and “Good Touching, Bad Touching.” The real consequence of these fears is not from people we don’t know; the biggest threat to most kids is their own home life, accidents and abuse from friends and family. Nasty things do happen with strangers, but when you look at the numbers there really is no comparison.

Then there was 9/11 of course, where the media used fear to surrender our civil liberties…

BTR: What ways have we changed our lives as a society to deal with these fears?

DA: Several ways [which] really interest me. One way [is how] massive surveillance [is installed] in order to try and prevent the source of our fear from harming us. The logic is simple and wrong of course, but popular: if we just had more information of what goes on in public life, if we could survey better with cameras and other technologies, we would be a lot safer. It’s made public life much scarier for a lot of people. Many people now won’t even go into cities, and I’m not even talking about the historically nasty parts of some central cities, but the whole sense of urban life has been threatened.

BTR: What can we do to moderate its presence in our lives?

DA: The bottom line is we need to become more aware of how current practices we engage in now, including the language we use, promote fear. Not just the media, but all of us.

To hear the rest of our interview with David Altheide, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly

Photo courtesy of epSos .de.

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