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“The Culture of Fear”: Fears based on Fallacies
Americans have a tendency to underestimate the power of the media and its influence over our beliefs and expectations in society. News is delivered to our homes in many different ways including the television, newspaper and word of mouth. It is our first instinct to take what we see and hear from authority figures or news stations to be true. Therefore, we do not realize that the “media,” in any form, often delivers more or less than solid facts. The media has the ability to report what it wants you to hear. The messages it communicates may exaggerate unimportant details but leave out or belittle major events it is uninterested in. The promoting of false beliefs is not limited to the media; influential organizations and people (such as politicians) can be just as effective in spreading such beliefs. The Culture of Fear, written by Barry Glassner, introduces readers to an inside look at this concept.
In his book, Glassner uncovers false beliefs held by a vast majority of people. These beliefs constitute myths and urban legends that make up an ever-growing “Culture of Fear” in America. The “Fear mongers,” as Glassner classifies them, promote unwarranted fears among the general public. Americans therefore focus their attention on “being afraid of the wrong things.” The “wrong things” include unwarranted fears the media expresses as truths. Often more important serious events become neglected when so much attention is put on propaganda in the news. Using a plethora of facts and statistics, Glassner supports his argument using specific examples of how “fear mongers” have succeeded in stirring up fear in the public. “How fears are sold,” “Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics,” and “Faulty diagnoses and Callous Cures” are a few themes Glassner uses to prove his point.
The theme, How Fears are Sold, is initially introduced in the first chapter, “Dubious Dangers on Roadways and Campuses.” This section describes the ease in which people are sucked into “scares” or “hype” regarding a nonexistent problem. Glassner describes road rage as a small risk the media successfully turned into a wide scale fear among Americans. Organizations responsible for Introducing fear of road rage to Americans include talk show hosts, news reporters, and printed news sources. In one example, Glassner identifies Oprah Winfrey as one guilty “fear monger.” In a 1997 program on road rage, Oprah described several incidents where road rage grew into shootings and fistfights (Glassner 4). Despite the fact that road rage rarely transforms into anything more serious, Oprah’s “influential power” inspired fear into many of her viewers. Road rage is most definitely not a significant risk to drivers. According to U.S. News and World Report, the AAA attributed only 218 out of 250,000 deaths on the road due to angry drivers between 1990 and 1997 (Glassner 5).
Another example of this phenomenon of “selling fears” to television viewers can be seen in talk shows that repetitively seek out troubled teenagers. These teenagers or pre-teens in some cases are often rebellious delinquents, drug-attics, or posses some other combination of immoral qualities. People exposed to these forms of media, which present teenagers this way, are taught to view all teenagers as potential criminals.
Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics reflects the theme of the second chapter, “Crime in the News.” Crime in the news occurs each time we turn on the television and are exposed to exaggerated and right or left wing information. News channels claim to report reliable facts, but the way in which news stories are reported often reflect these types of biases. Fox news, whose former maxim was “we report, you decide,” is probably the most notorious channel for advocating conservative or right wing views. The film, “outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” presents a compilation of Fox news’ most embarrassing moments throughout the years.
The Outfoxed film also includes a series of ex-Fox news employees whom retell their experience working for the company. The past employees confess Fox was responsible for the unfair manipulation of News broadcasted to the public. Jon Du Pre, former Fox News Anchor, confesses in an interview in the Outfoxed film, that as an employee, he was taught that “we were not necessarily there as journalists or broadcasters to serve the viewers; we were there to serve headquarters. What headquarters wanted, that’s what we would give them” (Outfoxed). Fox news utilized methods of propaganda to promote what “headquarters wanted,” which was often to support conservative politicians or beliefs. Du Pre reports that, “we were not necessarily broadcasting, we were ‘narrowcasting’… we were there to appease a constituency: That constituency was conservative, perhaps republic, males” (outfoxed). Outfoxed is a good example of the media’s impact on people and its power to broadcast what is important to the news station and not necessarily what is important for viewers to see.
The “Razorblade in the Apple” is a classic example of the media’s ability to stir-up fear over an invalid conspiracy. Each Halloween, the media reminds parents to thoroughly check their children’s Halloween candy for dangerous substances such as poison or needles. The legend of “the razorblade in the apple” has in fact become so serious that police and medical centers all over the country have gone so far as to x-ray bags of candy to make sure it is safe for children to eat. The truth is that few cases of Halloween poisoning have ever been reported. The two real cases of Halloween poisoning that have been reported do not involve a deranged stranger giving children poisoned candy. The two cases both involved a parent intentionally murdering their child by giving them poisoned candy. For example, in 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan killed his son by lacing his son’s pixie stick with cyanide (Radford). Unnecessarily taking such precautions as x-raying Halloween candy furthers the unwarranted fear of the “Razorblade in the Apple.”
Like the “Razorblade in the Apple,” the issues of internet danger and the booming child pornography business are largely unwarranted fears shaped by the media. According to Glassner, “A report on NBC news in 1977 let it be known that ‘as many as two million American youngsters are involved in the fast-growing, multi-million dollar child-pornography business’”(Glassner 32). This statement was proved to be wrong: child pornography, in fact, probably accumulated less that $1 million a year with hundreds, not millions, of American children involved (Glassner 32).
In addition to the evils of child pornography, the internet is thought to be a very dangerous place for vulnerable children that spend hours in front of their computers. According to an article in the Journal of School Violence, “the internet has provided a new medium for the victimization of children, and sexual exploitation in cyberspace is among the most dangerous threats to youth online” (Journal). Although, the internet exposes children to potential communication with strangers through emails and chat-rooms, Glassner points out that “government officials do a great deal of lurking and entrapping” to catch “cyberspace creeps” (Glassner 33). Most internet providers also offer parental controls that limit a child’s online activities.
Despite the fear of online pedophiles, few criminal incidents have occurred involving children and strangers online. According to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “Such are the frightening new frontiers of cyberspace, a place where the child thought safely tucked away in his or her room may be in greater danger than anyone could imagine” (Glassner 35). Glassner makes an interesting point referring to this comment: “For those most at risk for sexual abuse, to be left in their rooms with a computer would be a godsend” (Glassner 35). The media should focus its attention on these children that are likely to be at a higher risk for abuse than well-off children that have their own computers with online access in their rooms.
Faulty Diagnosis and Callous Cures is the major theme found in chapter three of The Culture of Fear, “Youth at Risk.” The media has a way of pinpointing minors as highly vulnerable to both committing crimes and becoming the victims of crime. Many accusations, however, hold little truth. Glassner supports this point by explaining the reality behind the problem of “missing children” (Glassner 60). Americans are consistently being introduced to stories of missing children in the mail and on television.
The amount of attention missing children receive is enough to make parents nervous about their own children being at risk for getting kidnapped by a stranger. Most children that are reported missing, however, are runaways, fleeing from emotional or physical abuse at home (Glassner 61). Also, the children that are reported missing have often been “abducted” by another family member, and not by a strange kidnapper. Children, themselves, are likely to be frightened when exposed to the idea of kidnapping. Pediatrician, Dr. Brazelton, claims “I don’t think it’s really appropriate to make them afraid of everybody” (Glassner 62).
Fear mongering in children and teenagers in not limited to kidnapping. School security measures are becoming more extreme than ever before. More high schools are investing in surveillance cameras and crime prevention programs. Schools in Baltimore are purchasing specialized digital surveillance cameras which can both detect motion and see in the dark (smile). Although the addition of surveillance cameras is meant to ensure student safety at school, one may wonder if doing so is really a warranted act. It is unfair that video cameras consistently watch students when at school. The extra precaution makes schools seem more like probation centers than places of learning.
Some people are concerned about the lack of privacy and trust students may experience when being video taped at school. “I think we’re rearing a generation of schoolchildren who will always be looking over their shoulders” is Beth Givens opinion, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House (smile). The cameras, though meant to ensure safety, most definitely produce an insecure feeling in public schools. At Santiago High School in Corona, signs above each vending machine read, “smile, you are being videotaped.” The signs are meant to prevent potential vending machine bashers from destructing school property by warning them that they could face serious charges. In reality, however, these types of warnings produce feelings of unease in public schools.
Programs involving drug abstinence are becoming even more invasive in public junior high and high schools as they involve random searching of student property and in some cases, the use of drug-dogs to search the school for illegal substances. Increasingly, drug dogs are being used in school districts to perform routine drug searches. The Administrators of schools that use the dogs say that “the program isn’t a reaction to a rise in drug incidents: It’s about deference” (Perez). In an article in the Orange County Register, Magnolia High School Principal, Ken Fox, reports that drug use has decreased since he started in the district more than 20 years ago (Perez). For Principal Ken Fox, the drug dog is just an “extra layer of prevention.”
These drastic measures may conjure more of a “faulty diagnosis and callous cure” than anything else. One incidence at Magnolia High School (Anaheim Union High School district) left a girl in tears after a drug dog had found interest in her school supplies. The student’s mom was called shortly after and the student’s car checked, only to find that she was indeed not in possession of any illegal substances (Perez). Not only does the program seem invasive and unnecessary to students, it is costing the school districts an average of $50,000 a year in federal grant money to fund the drug dog program (Perez).
How Fears are Sold, Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics, and Faulty Diagnosis and Callous Cures all effectively counter traditional fears Americans have bought into over the years. Glassner destructs the common fear of road rage in the first section of The Culture of Fear, How Fears are sold. In this section, it is brought to the reader’s attention how easily statistics and other data can be manipulated to make people believe that there truly is a serious epidemic where there is not one. Oprah’s program on road rage in 1997 was an effective example of a respected person’s ability to inspire fear. Her prestige as a remarkable talk show host gave her the power to influence her audience.
In the second section, Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics, the long held urban legend “The Razorblade in the Apple,” is destructed with evidence of the only real incidents of Halloween sadism; both of which did not involve strangers giving away tainted Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters. The Outfoxed film also fell into this category of Tall Tales and Overstated Statistics, as it revealed all of Fox news’ flaws in reporting reliable news. The right wing, conservative, nature of Fox news is supported by several interviews by ex-Fox Journalists, Producers, and News Anchors in the Outfoxed film as evidence. The ex-employees all reported various accounts of unfair news broadcasting.
Faulty Diagnosis and Callous Cures, the theme of the third chapter, reveals the media’s ability to create a problem where it doesn’t exist and then attempt to cure it unnecessarily. Glassner explains the reason behind the hype over “kidnapping”: an occurrence that is feared more than it should be. The recent addition of drug dogs to school security systems also seems like a “callous cure” to a “faulty diagnosis” of drug problems in public schools.
The American “Culture of Fear” is a long held tradition that is continuously being reinforced by the media. Reporters, writers, and other sources of mass media are constantly selling fears through exaggerated facts, unclear statistics, and other techniques of persuasion. Fear is the most important emotion the media can invoke in people because it controls our behavior. Actions such as the addition of surveillance cameras in American school districts make it clear that our fears are derived from lack of trust. According to Dr. John Eyles, “we need to develop and maintain trust, and cultivate respect in institutions” (Eyles). Without trust Americans can not trust the government or their fellow citizens in society.
There are many ways Americans can avoid falling victim to false or stretched information. One example is reading Reason magazine, which has been around since 1968. Reason magazine offers an alternative to reading or viewing marginal sources of information that use the news as propaganda. Reason attempts to promote a free society by “developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law” (Reason). Other ways Americans can protect themselves from falling victim to propaganda is to do their own research on political organizations and avoid biased news channels. Simply being aware that much of the news we are presented with consists of propaganda, can make Americans more conscientious about the unwarranted fears they are buying into. Glassner’s, The Culture of Fear, provides information every American should be knowledgeable about regarding the power of the media to distort facts. Despite the power of the media, every American has the ability to fight back against propaganda and to think rationally.
Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear. New York: Basic, 1999. “OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” Interview by Jon Du Pre.
Radford, Benjamin. “Candy Fears are Mere Halloween Phantoms.” Skeptical Inquirer 25 Nov. 2005 http://www.livescience.com/othernews/051025_halloween_candy.html
“Emerging Risks of Violence in the Digital Age.” Journal of School Violence. 25 Nov. 2005. <http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/sum2002/cyberviolence/>
“Smile kids.” WTOP radio network 31 Mar. 2005 25 Nov. 2005 <http://www.wtopnews.com/?sid=381472&nid=316>
Perez, Erika “Drug Dogs Sniff out Trouble at OC Schools” The Orange County Register 4 Nov. 2005. 25 Nov 2005. http://www.ocregister.com/ocregister/news/atoz/article_750940.php
Eyles, John. “The Culture of Fear and Environmental Health: Making Policy in Uncertain Times” 21 Mar. 2003. 25 Nov. 2005. < http://www.ec.gc.ca/seminar/Eyles_e.html>
“Reason” Reason Foundation 25 Nov. 2005 <www.reason.org
- Quote paper
- Tina Jafarkhani (Author), 2005, The Culture of Fear - Fear Based on Fallacies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/109706