Franklin D. Roosevelt was once famously quoted in saying that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” An interesting perspective that will last the test of time, no doubt – but is this really the case? Well, certainly not if you take a glance at a modernised 21st century world that surrounds us today, and for that matter, arguably not the world we have always known throughout the annuals of time.
In the first edition of this feature, Ethan Nash breaks down how the media play a central role in producing a discourse of fear, and how this subsequently has allowed the media to have a profound affect on the world today.
THE MEDIA AND FEAR
It has now surpassed a decade since the attacks of 9/11 transformed the world that we live – and as a forever expanding state of paranoia emerged in the aftermath – there has seemingly been a never-ending supply of reasons to be afraid of, well, just about anything.
At this very moment, avian and swine flu pandemics are running rapid, international terrorism remains entangled in every aspect of our lives, religious extremism seeks to destroy the freedom of you and your family, and a black man is ready to rob your house at the first chance he gets.
The likelihood of these events actually affecting you? Well, you would be surprised at the statistics. In fact, people in modern western countries live a healthier, safer, and more predictable lifestyle than at any time in history. So, even with this increasing education about the world around us, why are we still continuously suspicious of that very same world? Well, the answer is simple – the media is responsible.
It is a safe assertion to say that the media is one of the most influential and prominent aspects of society. However, more often than not, the media will deliberately seek to entertain an audience by relying on fear tactics such as stereotypes, sensationalism and bias content to create a ‘must-see’ atmosphere for viewers to tune into and be captivated by on a regular basis. The truth is often manipulated in order to provoke such public interest, although this is usually at the expense of accuracy:
It is human nature to want to protect the loved ones around us, and when danger arises, people want to know about. Capatalising on this, the media will use auditory queues, linguistic patterns, and segment cliffhangers in their programming – in order to entice people to stay attentive.
Through this, the media will use any means necessary to make sure that such a goal is regularly fulfilled – even if it means giving an inaccurate representation of the truth.
The media’s willingness to sensationalise topics continues to produce a discourse of fear, while the pervasive communication generates an expectation that danger and risk is a central feature of everyday life. A prime example of this can be demonstrated in the following clip (see 2:14):
BE VERY AFRAID
Fear is a powerful emotion. When people are afraid, they react. Impact of danger on emotions and the distortive effect of fear on subjective beliefs and individual choices can have a lasting effect on a person.
Not surprisingly, sociologists have come to identify our mediated knowledge of high-consequence risks as a major source of contemporary anxiety. Furthermore, in an environment filled with such emotion, it is a natural assumption to seek someone or something to blame, as we have seen in the past.
On April 20, 1999, two senior students – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – murdered a total of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in the United States. The Columbine shootings would leave a nation terrified, and the implications of the media’s portrayal would once again shift public opinion – and shortly after – everyone was looking for someone to point the finger at:
To shed further empirical light on the underlying mechanisms of the media, let’s turn our attention a little closer to home. Let’s turn our attention to the Cronulla riots.
Tensions flared in December, 2005 when two volunteer lifesavers were ‘assaulted’ by a group of men claimed to be of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’.
In what was originally to be a small group of Australians voicing their opinions peacefully, soon turned into a violent mob of approximately 5,000 people – fueled by racial hatred – gathering at Cronulla Beach; carrying out vicious assaults on anyone deemed to be of ‘similar appearance’ in the process.
How did this seemingly primitive conflict of opinions suddenly turn into one of the largest racially-motivated conflicts in Australian history? Was this a mere coincidence? Did 5,000 people mutually agree to engage in such a vast demonstration? No, this is far from the reason.
The media’s sensationalist coverage of the original ‘assault’ was a calculated effort to divide and manipulate public perception, and would play a central role in generating the crucial stimulus for the riots. Let’s take a look at this article by the Australian Associated Press (AAP) for example:
In this 288 word article, the word “gang” is brought up in discussion 7 times – with Opposition Leader, Peter Debnam, stating that Sydney had become a “war-zone with roaming gangs of hundreds of ethnic thugs and the stockpiling of weapons and molotov cocktails.”
Despite the combined efforts of the media, one particular talk show host was at the center of this controversy; Alan Jones from 2GB radio. Following the original confrontation, listeners tuned into to ‘Breakfast with Alan Jones’, as a campaign was launched to “reclaim our beaches” from “Lebanese gangs” (see 0:08 – 1:05):
Throughout the duration of this broadcast, the listener is positioned to agree with the unjustifiable vilification of people with Lebanese ethnicity – accepting this as normal and objective judgment. Furthermore, the public’s perception of the incident at the beach is skewed due to Jones and his callers using hyperbole and stereotyping – whilst presenting a non-objective bias opinion of the event; capatalising on the station’s vast audience reach.
Shortly after the riots had ensued, the Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) would investigate the actions of Jones and his role in unnecessarily escalating tensions prior to the event:
The report concluded that Jones had been found guilty of conduct “that was likely to encourage violence or brutality; and… to vilify people of Lebanese and Middle-Eastern backgrounds on the basis of ethnicity.”
Aside from the fact that the actions of Jones wrong on a professional and ethical level, this event has set a dangerous precedent. Not only can the media reinforce popular opinion, but the media also has the ability to create news in the process.
The result of such serves one purpose to the media, and one purpose only – to generate income.
Critical objection and analysis of a small miscommunication between locals at Cronulla does not support the agenda of the media – however – sensationalism and fear of Lebanese ‘gangs’ terrorising the city does. Such a public perception will lead to an increase in viewer base, a generation of higher revenue through advertising, and subsequently will have the public eagerly awaiting the morning newspaper for updates.
Alan Jones’ selective representations of racist understandings took an insignificant event – and in turn – lead to the instigation of the riots, thus supporting the fulfillment of such an agenda to benefit from. This should not be the function of the media.
I have left a few studies below for anyone who would like to dig deeper into the methods associated with producing fear, as this was only a tiny breakdown in comparison to the topic in general.
“MASS MEDIA, CRIME, AND THE DISCOURSE OF FEAR”
“FEAR IN THE NEWS: A Discourse of Control”
“MEDIA INDUCED FEAR AND ANXIETY”
“Notes Towards A Politics Of Fear”
“The Discourse of Fear”
COMING SOON: A larger analysis of why the media does this and where the alternative media stands.