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Stanford’s Aurora Forum

‘Scare stories are easy,’ and other media secrets

Paul Saffo, Jay Harris, James Bettinger and Barry Glassner

Sociologist Barry Glassner persistently asserts that we live in the safest times in human history. So why are so many of us convinced that growing numbers of children are being abducted by strangers, mutant bacteria lurk on every toilet seat and the bearded man next to you on the plane is probably a terrorist?

The short answer: Blame the media.

“If you turn on local TV news, pretty much anywhere in this country, you will see lots of crime stories, and very little coverage of serious political races,” schools, health care, or the environment, Mr. Glassner said at a packed forum at Stanford University on Wednesday.

That sexed-up media barrage might explain why Americans tend to believe that crime rates are steady or rising, when in fact they have been falling for more than a decade.

To Mr. Glassner, market forces are at work when the news media make conscious decisions to go sensational. Two other panelists who shared the stage with him suggested reasons why.

The news often preys upon our fears because of a “tepid-to-fervent, depending on the day, consumerist bias” that is built into modern monopolistic media empires, said Jay Harris, publisher of Mother Jones magazine, CEO of the Foundation for National Progress. Moderator Paul Saffo jokingly described him as “the last standing member of the liberal media left.”

Mutant germs and teenagers on violent rampages are safe topics to hype because they don’t offend any moneyed interests, Mr. Harris said. And they obscure important stories, such as the Bush administration’s backdoor attacks on environmental regulation, which his magazine is now investigating despite warnings that the environment bores most readers.

James Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford, also supported Glassner’s view that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Mr. Bettinger described a growing cynicism among journalists confronted with a “cacophonous media environment,” with increasingly fragmented audiences and technology that can measure precisely when television viewers tune out of a news program.

“One of the things that editors are trying to do is find a way to stand out,” Mr. Bettinger said. “Quite honestly, a story that has a legitimate scare angle to it is a way to do that.

“Scare stories are easy,” Mr. Bettinger added. When all journalists have to do is find an academic who will back up a scary story, it takes less time and money than a thorough, nuanced investigation, he said.

The event was organized by Stanford’s Aurora Forum and derived its title from Mr. Glassner’s book, “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.” Mr. Glassner, who teaches at the University of Southern California, barely mentioned terrorism in his critically acclaimed 1999 tome, and when he did it was to debunk the outsized threat presented in the news.

Nearly two years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Mr. Glassner hasn’t changed this view. “The fear of terrorism is blown way out of proportion,” he declared, noting that drunk driving killed far more people that year.

That led a middle-aged woman in the audience who said she was from New York to challenge his assertion, saying anyone who equates accidents with the trauma of Sept. 11 has no idea what New Yorkers went through.

Mr. Glassner’s response: “Proportions matter.” Such tragedies, as dramatic as they are, should not be covered at the expense of much more prevalent dangers.

For example, who makes all those weapons that get featured so prominently in high-drama murder cases? Who cares? “The failure of politicians to stand up to the gun lobby doesn’t go well with the medium” of television, Mr. Glassner said.

Television is not alone in creating a sensationalist race to the bottom, Mr. Glassner said as he produced pages from last week’s Newsweek.

In an article titled “Man vs. Machine: Checkmate,” Newsweek offered: “Could we ever face anything akin to the horrendous sci-fi nightmares that we see in ‘Terminator 3’? In the long run, it’s well worth worrying about.” No, you can’t make this stuff up.

Of course the media aren’t the only ones who profit from the culture of fear, Mr. Glassner cautions. Politicians, builders of gated communities and vendors of antibacterial soap have tangible financial stakes in perpetuating irrational fears.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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