Saturday, February 07, 2009

Media and the Culture of Fear

The world is a scary place, apparently. In the last 24 hours, media across the world hammered this home with a litany of fearful events. Across Australia, there were many matters to worry about. Over in Perth people were fretting over casino security guards with batons. The Melbourne Age found fear in pockets (and you had to read well down the article to find out the scary things were isolated areas not holes in your pants). The Sydney Daily Telegraph had their cake and ate it by inventing fears of water restrictions it could then squash. Here in Queensland the Brisbane Courier-Mail had two fears for the price of one when it freaked out about dengue fever's possible impact on Australia's "already troubled tourism industry".

Fear was also in abundance across the Pacific. The New York Times prefaced its story of a genuine Sri Lankan tragedy by saying “fears rise” over what comes next. That hotbed of intrigue, Washington DC, had double worries of social network viruses and presidential scare tactics. Up the road, The Philadelphia Bulletin wrote about fear of military attack (though not from Washington). Meanwhile The LA Times reminded us of FDR’s “fear itself” when it wrote “our reactions to fear can put us in peril.”

Across the world the misuse of fear was much the same. The Indian opposition BJP party is scared of a war with Pakistan (but only because it might hurt their election chances). Northern Irish postal workers are worried about a denial the Royal Mail will axe 16,000 jobs. Al Jazeera ascribes fear to a whole country when it says the United States is worried by Iranian satellites (a bit of metonymy that might be lost on the 99.99 per cent of Americans oblivious to events in Tehran). And pity poor Kenyans "with grey hair” who could become the next victim of witchcraft killers.

These fear stories all have one thing in common: they drag eyeballs to media and hopefully onto advertisers. But should fear be used in this way? Valid fears have their place; they are basic survival mechanisms that cue us to danger. For instance, fear of snakes and spiders was shaped by evolution and stretches back to a time when early mammals had to survive in an environment dominated by reptiles. Certain stimuli are pre-wired in the brain because they have been perennially dangerous to our ancestors.

But false fears only cause hardship. Frenzied public panics usually cause far more damage than whatever fear the panic is reacting to. Panics about crime cause untold amounts of money to be wasted on police investigations, show trials, and unnecessary incarceration. Fears of terrorism led to a war in Iraq that now costs the US $50billion in reconstruction of which $6 billion goes to private security firms. Meanwhile, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) calculates the cost of drug abuse at $100 billion but doesn’t offer an opinion on how much of that is wasted on dragging minor users through the criminal justice system.

NIDA’s own research says that there are at least 14.8 million Americans age 12 or older who used marijuana at least once a month in 2006. Both NIDA and Michael Phelps know well that appearing soft on drugs is not an option in today’s closely watched society. Despite the fact that even anti-drug campaigners admit that death from smoking cannabis is almost unknown, the chances of it being legalised anytime soon in most jurisdictions is slim due to the fear factor.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the availability heuristic. People make judgements based on what they can remember, rather than complete data. So whenever there is a drug death story, it increases fears about all drugs. Because we remember recent experiences or reports, the news has a significant effect on our decisions.

As Barry Glassner, observes in his book The Culture of Fear, we are primed by the news which increases the accessibility of this information. When Harvard Professors Robert Blendon and John Young did a meta-survey of drug abuse surveys between 1978 and 1997, they found eight out ten people said drug abuse has never caused problems in their family yet most were still scared of the consequences. What Blendon and Young discovered was that Americans predominately got their fears from the media not from personal experience. Television was the worst offender.

This is hardly surprising. TV news lives on a diet of fear. If it bleeds, it leads. Drugs, crime and disaster all make good copy – especially if the accompanying vision is compelling. Current Affairs programs lure their audiences in with lurid claims: “A show no parent can afford to miss”, “tune in or you will be the next victim”, “every mother’s nightmare.” And it doesn’t matter how unlikely the problem, current affairs can present distraught sufferers that trump the small risk by saying “whatever the statistics, it is devastating to the victims”. There but for the grace of God go I, we think - and fears are thus heightened. As the master of fear Alfred Hitchcock once observed, “there is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it”.


Joestoke said...

The most sickening is "Every parents worst nightmare"

David J said...

As someone who thinks marijuana should be legalised, I think part of the reason it hasn't been is that campaigners for legalisation have done a *very poor* job in addressing the fear it causes.

And the "availability heuristic" is very interesting. I used to work in a call centre for a major car manufacturer, and when a recall was announced for a very specific model and year of manufacture, we'd take calls all day from people who owned cars by that manufacturer asking if their car had a problem. A lot of the time their car was nothing like the one that had the problem, but they heard "MANUFACTURER insignificant detail insignificant detail SAFETY RECALL"

Derek Barry said...

Thats true about the legalisation campaigners David, but they've also been successfully marginalised.

Very few of the media narratives in the Phelps case tackle the idea of legalisation, they have been too wrapped up in the great story of a "misbehaving" sporting hero.

David J said...

"Thats true about the legalisation campaigners David, but they've also been successfully marginalised."

Yes, but part of politics is *avoiding* the marginalisation that your opponents will attempt to do to you.

In my experience of legalisation campaigns, campaigners have concentrated on facts and ignored the dark emotions that lead to a desire to keep marijuana possession a criminal matter. And they have also ignored the fact that support for legalisation has dropped in the last ten years, *especially amongst the young*.

I suspect (with nothing but gut feelings to go on) that young people who once supported legalisation have watched friends become hard-core stoners who are useless as actual friends. I also suspect there is impatience with the insistence of pro-legalisers that "Marijuana is harmless".