The Culture of Fear


This was written for a newsletter assignment, where we had to make our own newsletters, write our own articles, and design them using layouts and graphics. The topic of our newsletter was Sensationalism in the Media. You can see the final piece here. 

When every day seems to bring forward a new food that’s unsafe to eat, or a new location that’s unsafe to visit, or a new television show that’s unsafe to watch, it’s understandable that you would go through life with a sense of overwhelming anxiety. Most of this tends to be our own doing; we see or hear something on the TV or through a friend and our brain goes into overdrive thinking of every horrific outcome and problem that can arise. This of course isn’t a modern phenomenon, people have been getting worked up and scared about things since the beginning of humanity through episodes of mass hysteria. One of the most notorious examples of this would be the Salem witch trials in 1692, one of many witch trials that took place in America at the time, spurred by isolationism and religious extremism to name a few. Since the beginning of mass media however, starting with the modern newspaper up to the creation of the World Wide Web, the same culture of fear has been making appearances but in different subtle ways.

Modern-day humans consume a much larger amount of information than before, and with the internet and smartphones, the consumption is frighteningly close to a 24 hour a day intake. Coupled with our innate ability to become fearful about almost everything, the greater information consumption also comes with a greater consumption of bad news, accidents, deaths and other types of misery. The number of information sources has also risen dramatically over the years, so today, not only is there a greater amount of information coming in, there is a greater amount of places where this information is coming from.

The term “if it bleeds it leads” perfectly describes where many media outlets now find themselves. In the current economic climate which sees many TV stations cutting staff, and some newspapers closing altogether, the emphasis on sensational stories usually involving death or other gruesome subject matter tend to get preferential treatment. Though, they can’t be completely blamed for thinking this way, humans after all have a strange fascination with death and misery (the Colosseum anyone?) and it’s only natural for the free market to offer what people want. Many people however equate this onslaught of negative news is due to some kind of sinister intent, that either the companies owning the media property or the people within it, have something to gain from pushing sensationalism and death, something other than money. This argument is lobbied frequently towards entities like Fox News in America and Sun News in Canada; the insinuation being that they both mislead and frighten intentionally because it both sells and helps push viewers towards supporting political policies that benefit the corporation or the wealthy.

There could be arguments made that some media companies use fear as a basis of making money or pushing ideology, but one could make the point that the number of negative, gruesome stories far outweigh those with a positive and happy message. Life in general is a misery-filled roller coaster, and it’s only natural that the media cover that misery. If you were to ask any reporter, chances are they would probably say that they would prefer to cover stories that have nothing to do with death or crime, but it’s an unfortunate reality in the news business. That being said, there are many news organizations which could learn a thing or two about restraint. In his 1999 book ‘The Culture of Fear’, sociologist Barry Glassner noted that throughout the 1990s (and even nowadays) Americans were severely worried about things that weren’t as bad as they thought. When crime rates across America dropped in the 1990s, approximately two-thirds of Americans were under the impression that they were soaring. Similarly, drug use decreased by half in the late ‘90s, but 9 out of 10 people believed that there was a drug epidemic. As noted before, the amount of information has grown over the years, and with it, so has the number of negative news stories. When viewers are overwhelmed with negative news stories as opposed to positive ones, they are more likely to imagine that the world is a horrific, terrible, and dangerous place.

The solution to this would be to find some kind of sensible balance between the two sides. Cover an equal number of positive and negative stories to come to a sensible ratio, even though this is easier said than done. Like I mentioned before, reality offers us an obscene amount of bad news in comparison to good news, and good news itself is much harder to find. Another solution? To keep the negativity and horror from getting to us the way it does. But in our instant news age, that is more like an impossible feat than a simple fix.

Matthew Trevithick

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