Fear and the Media

L Martin, Staff Editor

If one were to continuously watch the news, they would think that every second of every hour of every day, someone in the world was dying. Although this is true, they would believe it was due to planes mysteriously disappearing; some new, unknown pathogen from abroad; or domestic terrorist attacks. These events do happen, but they don’t occur nearly as often as the media makes it appear.

The term “culture of fear” was coined by University of Southern California sociologist and professor Barry Glassner in his 1999 book by the same name. In it, Glassner examined America’s lust of fear and how the media in particular perpetrates and thrives on it. He argued that sensationalized stories about violent crimes such as murder and assault largely exaggerate the actual frequencies of these traumatizing yet relatively rare events and play on people’s fears. And it’s not hard to see how Glassner’s ideas still hold merit to this day 16 years later.

In October of last year, the media monitoring service TVEyes found that CNN mentioned ISIS more than 3,800 times over several weeks. Just from this almost frenzied coverage of such events alone could potentially explain why in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll of the same year found that 47% of Americans feel that they are less safe than before 9/11. What is even more interesting is that this is a 19% increase from 2013 where the number was 28%. This is also up from before September 11, 2001 which was just 20%.

So does this necessarily mean that correlation is causation in this situation?

A good psychologist would say “no”, because correlation does not mean causation. But with both network and cable news stations sometimes devoting an entire day to reporting and discussing such devastating events—which has increased from 5% in 2005 to 13% in 2012/2013 according to a Pew Research study—must have an effect on people’s mental health, wouldn’t it?

Dr. Graham Davey, a British psychologist that specializes in the psychological effects of media violence, would say “yes.”

“Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood—especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story,” Davey told The Huffington Post back in February. “…Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”

According to extensive research into how the media affects people, psychologists have found a numbing effect, or desensitization, that occurs when people are regularly exposed to fearful and/or violent stimuli over a long period of time. When desensitization sets in, the fear and anxiety that the stimuli induce no longer occurs, or it becomes extinct altogether. When this happens a variety of cognitive and behavioral outcomes result. The obvious one is seeing violence as something normal and, according to a research report titled Comfortably Numb Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others, a “lower likelihood of intervening [to help someone].”

Davey also points out the news’ emotional impact.

“These images change our overall mood to a more negative one–more sad or more anxious—and it is this change in mood that leads to psychological changes in the way we attend to things around us (e.g. we are more likely to pick out things in our environment that are potentially negative or threatening). This can have a vicious cycle effect on mood, generally for some time,” Davey explained.

So with all this in mind, perhaps it’s good every now and again to take a break from television just like one should do with their internet usage. The world is not as scary as the media portrays it to be. Maybe one should go outside and see.