Fear Mongering in the 21st Century Newsroom

The other night I was riding the metro home, when a kind, albeit chatty, woman sitting beside me said she was relieved to see three officers patrolling our compartment. “Anyone could be on this train. There could be a terrorist here. For all anyone knows, there could be a bomb in your bag,” she said, nudging my modest tote bag with her foot.

Deep down, I think she probably knew the chances of a terrorist riding from Los Angeles to Lancaster were slim to none.  Even someone concealing a weapon would have been a stretch. Though I know this to be true, I am not immune either to letting irrational fears take over, to surveying fellow passengers, strangers and classmates, and sometimes wondering, What if? I am not immune to jumping at an abrupt sound, only to realize it’s the loud slap of a flip-flop coming down a stairway.

In an attempt to combat the paranoia I sometimes see in myself and in others, I decided to analyze what could possibly allow our minds to overhype normal, day-to-day activities and transform them into the next potential Columbine.

The answer, I believe, lies in my chosen career path, my self-imposed calling: journalism.

Here’s the thing about what I write and what I read in the news: It’s almost entirely depressing. A father worried about the economy kills his family and then himself. Identity theft is on the rise. Disabled people are more likely to be victims of crime than anyone else. The top three viewed stories on CNN.com right now are, “Suspect named in death of actress’s fiancé,” ”Former Japanese finance minister found dead,” and “Beaten teen’s funeral held in Chicago.”

But before I continue, I want to be clear that I’m not arguing we shield ourselves from the ugly in the world. Journalists have a responsibility to report what’s going on, even if that means reporting the disheartening and the scary. I don’t expect, nor do I think, that bad news is going to go away. However — if journalists are going to engage in this type of reporting, I am calling on them to take a look at how they present these stories, to ask themselves why they’re presenting them that way and to take a moment and consider the effect that presentation can have on an impressionable public. Though fear mongering and sensationalism are by no means new to journalism, the enhanced pressure of deadlines and competition in the 24/7 news era lends itself to irresponsibility in the newsroom. This, in turn, fosters an unrealistic sense of imminent danger and perpetuates feelings of anxiety for both journalists and news consumers.

Just by considering the very definition of news, it becomes immediately apparent why the stories we read are making the front page. News, by definition, is something new. (Earth-shattering, I know.) If it happened every day, it wouldn’t be newsworthy. It is supposed to take us by surprise, or at least present something unusual. By that definition, it makes sense that headlining stories involve car chases, gang wars and homicides. What is ironic is that the more we read and watch stories about danger and violence, the more we begin to think these aren’t just isolated, extraordinary circumstances — which is the very reason they made the news in the first place. They are so prevalent in everything we read and watch that overtime they begin to fuse, creating a horror-filled world. They begin to manifest as real threats and trends. When a channel dedicates 55 minutes of its hour-long news program to evildoers, kidnappings and shootings, it impresses upon us that this is the end-all of what’s happening in the world.

Because of this, a “culture of fear” has emerged. Author and USC executive vice provost Barry Glassner’s book by the same name, subtitled “Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” argues that the media are very much responsible for the widespread pathology of paranoia in the United States.  Though journalists have a right and a duty to report distressing statistics and stories, he makes a convincing case that they are also misreporting, focusing on the wrong topics, and in some cases, creating doom and gloom where it isn’t called for.

In one example from Glassner’s book, he addresses a common fear: the fear of flying. He says the media does relate to audiences that people die in car accidents three more times in any given year than the number of people who have died on flights in the history of commercial aviation. At the same time, they continue to play up the fear of going on flights. Misunderstandings also lead to misreporting. Glassner cites a 1998 story in the Washington Post called “Airline Accident Rate is Highest in 13 Years” (Glassner 183). In actuality, Glassner said, the rate of accidents was on a decline. The number of accidents had gone up because more flights were taking off — but this didn’t affect the rate. We will explore possible reasons for such false reporting a little bit later.

Like the plane example, reporters tend to invoke fear over the wrong topics by blowing isolated events out of proportion, distracting us from more worthwhile fears. With so much bad news to choose from, editors and journalists sometimes pick the wrong bad news, emphasizing illegitimate concerns instead of the real problems. One story that garnered a lot of attention back in the 1990s was the “growing epidemic” of road rage. In a Los Angeles Times article, the reporters opens with an anecdote, as the L.A. Times is apt to do, about an instance of someone being shot on the road. Several paragraphs down, the reporter writes:

“Road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country, but nowhere has it been more painful or pronounced than in the Pacific Northwest. Five drivers or their passengers have died since 1993” (Murphy).

Given that the article was written in 1998, that statistic averages out to about one person per year dying from road rage, which hardly classifies as “an exploding phenomenon.” The topic was not confined to this one article. Just last year, the L.A. Times ran another story called “Road-rage killings strikes again: They are random and senseless” (Vartabedian). The reporter says that neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the California High Patrol keep track of how many people are shot on the road by other motorists. Regardless, he says, shootings have a long history — the most famous being John F. Kennedy’s. That calls into question exactly what falls under this ambiguous “road rage” categorization. I was under the impression JFK’s death was a planned assassination, not a kneejerk reaction incited by JFK motorcade tailgating another driver.

Other times, a fear is warranted, but it lacks proper context. Sometimes only a few minutes more of information gathering could put a story in perspective. Let’s go back to that headline about the disabled being the most likely victims of crimes (Freiden). As soon as I read this story on CNN, my mind raced to my autistic brother, a sweet, unassuming little boy, who would never hurt anyone. This story would have me believe my brother is just another statistic waiting to happen. What the story didn’t tell me is what percentage of disabled people are assaulted. My guess is there are millions of disabled people, which means that, hypothetically, maybe 3 percent of disabled people are ever victimized. Also, what types of people are being defined as disabled? The story is vague and could mean anyone — from someone who is temporarily on crutches to someone who is dyslexic. Journalists, so pressed for time, don’t stop to consider the bigger picture or the effect their words might have on a reader like myself.

This leads me to my next question: Why is this happening? I’ve been taught in journalism school to put aside my biases, but I firmly believe that most journalists who aspire to write hard news enter the industry with good intentions. Why does ethical, thorough reporting become skewed and sensationalized?

More than ever before, journalism has become a profit-driven industry. To stay alive in an era that my professors are more or less referring to as the demise of the print industry, reporters have the pressure of fierce competition from all directions, including the blogosphere. Looking back at the airline story where the reporters and editors mistook the word “rates” for “incidents,” it is possible it was a careless mistake made under a tight deadline. It is a writer’s job to ask all the right questions and make sure he or she understands the concepts behind whatever technical jargon their interview subjects may spit out. If the reporter asked for clarification, it’s possible the “rates” versus “incidents” misunderstanding could have been avoided. Also, because of layoffs in the newsroom and time pressure, there isn’t as much staff or as much time to double check and question what a writer puts down on paper. Writers have to rely on themselves to get things right more than ever.

Picking the stories that will generate the most attention is an unfortunate given. Unfortunate, but necessary in order to keep afloat among such fierce competition. In Social Marketing in the 21st Century, Allen R. Andreasen set out to explain, like Glassner pointed out, why the media acknowledge it’s more likely to die in a bathtub than a plane crash, yet continue to stir up alarm over flying:

“Crashes make for vivid reporting, tragic human interest stories, and sometimes episodes of bravery and sacrifice. Such stories play out over many news cycles and can reinforce a common fear that flying is quite risky” (44).

The problem here is that we, the news consumers, buy into these stories. We eat up tragic stories. It’s like driving by an accident; it’s upsetting and scarring, but we slow down though our instincts tell us to look away. It’s a symbiotic relationship: The readers are feeding the journalists, and the journalists are feeding the readers.

Profit-driven reporting spills over into how the news media brand events. As a viewer is flipping through channels, the news organization knows it has about a five-second window of opportunity to grab the viewer’s attention with a compelling phrase. For example, Virginia Tech wasn’t just a mass shooting. CNN dubbed it “Virginia Tech Massacre” — the text oozing down the screen in red, bloodlike script. Here, although sensationalism sells and scare tactics do attract immediate attention, the media are also running the risk of turning away the faint of heart. I personally know people who can’t stand to watch the news, because it’s so overwhelming and emotionally draining. Language is a powerful tool, and journalists who are mindful of their audience would do well to wield their newspeak carefully.

The last explanation I will offer for journalists’ fear mongering is the least mainstream, but something I see from personal experience as having a large impact on the way reporters report: the psychological effect of news on the journalist. If the constant barrage of bad news has an effect on the news audience, consider the effect it has on the journalist, whose life is dedicated to scoping out these stories in the 24/7 news age. Because of the Internet era, readers can pick and choose what they want to know about. They have the option of filtering out the disillusioning and the depressing. They can choose to stock up on the latest from Perez Hilton instead. For journalists, on the other hand, if they aren’t practicing community journalism — which is more attune to local Little League victories than catastrophic events — or entertainment journalism, they can either grin and bear the downpour of bad news they’re dealt, or they can submit to it.

One indication that journalists are negatively affected by what they report is their reputation for smoking and drinking, not only because of the stress of deadline—although that is no minor factor—but also because of the nature of the stories they cover. Truman Capote said, “”I drink, because it’s the only time I can stand it” (Waldron).  Similarly, photojournalist and recovering alcoholic David Ogot, said “most journalists smoke and drink to drown the images and pitiful stories they have to cover” (Arogo).

Former reporter William J. Drummond warned his colleagues to take the proper steps to heal their wounds:

“When [journalists] tell stories of trauma, loss, suffering, they do not walk away clean. Yet, as an industry, the news media offer little if any preparation or comfort to its workers who face this kind of emotional meat grinder. Instead the journalists are expected to suck it up and move on. When somebody shoots up a schoolyard, the school officials routinely call in grief counselors to tend to the survivors. But the reporters and camera people who covered that story get no such attention. They saddle up and go off to the next crime scene” (par. 13).

What results, I believe, is that the more journalists report on bad news, the more their rose-tinted lens on the world turns to gray. Journalists are often cynics. I would argue that their psychology, their inflicted state of mind brought upon over time by the nature of their work, pours into how they approach every new story. What’s the catch? they wonder. It is understandable why writers might have a worst-case scenario mentality, since the worst case is often what they are exposed to. One recent example of a writer scrounging for something negative in what could have been an all-around happy story was an article about Elizabeth Smart finally getting her day in court to testify. “Too often, it seems, the world is filled with bad news,” the reporter began. “But every now and then […] a story has a happy ending.” Then, the article takes an abrupt turn for the worst, and unnecessarily, too. He concludes: “Thankfully, we aren’t left to deal with the aftermath of what may have happened had she not been found. Unfortunately, not all children are as lucky,” and then goes on to list statistics about the hundreds of thousands of children gone missing each year. The transition from happy to downright Debbie Downer was tangential at best. You can just see him floundering, trying to rid cynicism from his system and then…failing.

It’s almost as if journalists have entered a frame of mind where they so expect things to be wrong that, when they aren’t wrong, this presents a fear of a looming catastrophe — a fear of the unknown. This, in my opinion, is the worst form of fear mongering — when a writer’s own trepidation becomes warrant for a story. A classic example is a Newsweek story — “The Lull Before the Storm?” The article, written in 1995, begins by saying crime fell by 7 percent nationally since 1990 — a fact that mayors were “euphoric” about. The writer follows up that spoonful of sugar with this:

“… there is bad news ahead. Criminologists are already warning that the United States can expect another wave of violent crime in the coming decade, and some say it will be much worse than the one that is now subsiding.”

The writer next references another article that “ominously predicts ‘The Coming of the Super-Predators’—teenage boys who routinely carry guns, who ‘have absolutely no respect for human life’ and who ‘kill and maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive’” (Smith, Beals, Brant, Annin).

First, what sets “Super-Predators” apart from the passable, OK-At-Best Predators? Do they wear capes? Second, why are these fear-based predictions making national news? The effect on readers, especially young readers who have to worry about their lab partner becoming the next Super-Predator, is unnecessarily paralyzing.  The writer should hold off on writing about these mutant teenagers until that fear comes to pass.

Perhaps even more disparaging: As I read this story, I saw an adjacent and very graphic ad of a mutated, scabbed and pothole-infested back that read, “If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re at risk of Shingles.” Great. If I’m not worried about a Super-Predator killing my roommate, I now have to worry about my 6-year-old bout of chickenpox becoming a blistering skin rash. Dan Rather once said, “Once we begin to see ourselves as more of a business and less a public service, the decline in quality is accelerated” (Mindich 80). Though undoubtedly good journalism is practiced every day, it is disappointing when business considerations and scare tactics overshadow quality reporting.

Journalists owe it to their public and to themselves to take a step back and put the story in perspective — to consider the emotional toll that resonates with news consumers. “It can happen to you” and “you’re next” is not ethical, whether it’s allowing a suspect ad about shingles to interrupt the flow of text to make money, or letting an isolated road rage incident become an exploding phenomenon. We should remember that one of the most revered journalists in history is Edward R. Murrow, who incidentally made it his job to dispel irrational fears. News corporations would also do well to put scaremongers in check, acknowledge that happy stories sell, and realize that striking an emotional balance might not hurt sales.

What’s more, “real” journalists grumble about gossip magazines, entertainment television and tabloids. The proliferation of celebrity news disturbs some journalists who consider themselves the stalwarts of hard news, but they need to ask themselves why people choose to consume “guilty pleasures” so veraciously. The answer is in the word “pleasure.” It’s light. It makes people happy, and happiness sells. Journalists don’t have to smear their good name and debate “Who wore it better? Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan?”, but they can tell respectable, happy stories with no catch. In fact, one of the biggest stories earlier this year was pilot Chelsey “Sully” Sullenbergers’s successful landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Heroism and feel-good stories have a place in the market.

If journalists can temper their language and report the right stories the right way, it is possible that the faint of heart can watch the 11 o’clock news and still manage to clock in some peaceful sleep.  Misplaced fears are detrimental to the minds of Americans and are undermining the ability to address the truly pressing issues of the day. The world we see on our televisions is scarier than the world outside our front doors. Journalists are supposed to be the watchdogs of society, not the harbingers of hysteria.

Works Cited

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