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December 19, 2003

The THES serves up six pages of reflections on some of the changes that have been making many people in our society feel increasingly anxious and frightened

TV journalism is making people unduly fearful of violent crime, says Barry Glassner. We need to get our bull**** detectors working, he tells Stephen Phillips

Many people might think it odd that television news ranks so high in The THES poll of what has done most to undermine our culture, but Barry Glassner would not be one of them. The sociology professor at the University of Southern California - best known for his bestseller Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things and for his appearance in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning film Bowling for Columbine - blames television news, particularly the 24-hour variety, for creating a mood of overweening anxiety among the general public.

And although he is talking about the US, his comments resonate with many people in the UK. Despite US figures showing that violent crime has dropped since 1994 and hit an all-time low in 2002, polls show that Americans still believe crime is more rife now than it was before. The fear many feel has no doubt been compounded by the events of September 11, 2001.

But even in 2001, Glassner says, Americans were ten times more likely to be struck down in a motor vehicle accident than by a terrorist attack. "By and large, Americans live in the safest times and the safest place in human history," he says.

The fear that people are feeling, however, does not encourage vigilance, he says. It does the opposite and makes people behave less safely. "The more anxious, fearful and distracted a person is, the more (accident-prone) they are," he says.

Obsessing over groundless fears and spending public money to protect people from very unlikely dangers means that the real triggers of violence and terrorism - social inequality and poor education and healthcare - are ignored. Glassner singles out spiralling US imprisonment rates, which are, he says, a response to perceived levels of crime.

Since 1995, the US inmate population has swelled by almost 30 per cent to the point where one out of every 143 US residents was behind bars in 2002 - a rate that is at least five times higher than in other industrialised nations.

But why are people so afraid? According to a 2000 survey carried out by the US television network ABC, 80 per cent of Americans considered "the crime problem" either "bad" or "very bad" - but 82 per cent of those respondents got their impression from the news media rather than from personal experience.

"Most nights of the year, you will turn on your TV and... see frightening violence, which gives the impression that this is prevalent and something you should worry about wherever you live," Glassner says.

Striving to stand out amid cut-throat competition, media outlets try to distinguish themselves from the white noise of exhaustive news coverage with shrill, sensational storylines, Glassner says. This mentality among news editors is now "if it bleeds, it leads" - which means that a violent crime will be given more prominence than a story without graphic, bloody images.

In America, such excess is often a function of the advent of rolling 24-hour news coverage and tabloid-style TV news magazines. But Glassner notes a disquieting pattern whereby shocking one-off stories are seized on and used to (wrongly) diagnose full-blown trends. Viewers' fears are further stoked by the incendiary language that is employed to deliver stories - news anchors routinely speak of "epidemics" and "catastrophes".

Glassner notes the complicity of so-called academic experts, usually with dubious credentials, egged on to endorse the conflation of anecdote with broad trend. "There are cases where academics helped promote overblown fears... (but) one of the quite consistent findings when I looked at road rage and internet addiction was that it was people who were far from leading experts in the field... who were most often quoted."

The emphasis on "dramatic moving pictures" and stories that lend themselves to snappy, alarmist soundbites mean that genuine problems, deemed worthy but dull, are neglected, Glassner adds.

An Emory University study cited in Culture of Fear uncovered an inverse relationship between coverage of mortality and health risks and the actual threat posed. Death by homicide and illicit drug use, both statisically unusual, hogged news pages at the expense of heart disease, the number-one killer, and poor diet and lack of exercise, leading causes of ill-health.

Food and nutrition is the focus of Glassner's forthcoming book, and the thread that links this subject and Culture of Fear is the way that "mistaken beliefs are manipulated by people and organisations for profit, and for political and career (ends)".

Politicians often have a vested interest in pressing panic buttons, Glassner notes. In Culture of Fear , he quotes Richard Nixon's characteristically cynical observation that "people react to fear, not love. They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true". Critics of President George W. Bush believe that fear of terrorism is being used to push through an extension of government power, under the US Patriot Act, and an attack-minded foreign policy.

"(The Bush) administration is certainly selling its foreign policy and military budget in part by fear-mongering," Glassner concedes, but he says Bill Clinton used fear to push through his policies, too.

Glassner highlights the increasing role played by single-issue advocacy groups in creating a sense of collective paranoia. Many of these, he says, adopt authoritative-sounding names to cloak their marginal views in the mantle of neutral objectivity.

"The anti-vaccine people are an interesting case - they spread scares about children's vaccines that are very dangerous (and) whooping cough cases have gone up as a result." Nevertheless, a journalist on deadline is much more likely to consult the National Center for Vaccine Information than its previous incarnation, Dissatisfied Parents Together, Glassner says.

Then there is the commercial arm of the fear industry - from burglar-alarm manufacturers to estate agents selling houses in gated communities.

Glassner's advice for negotiating the fear minefield is that we need to improve our bull****-detecting abilities. If we don't, he warns, the stakes are very high and our lives will be the poorer for it.

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