In the following discussion I will try to answer two questions: Why
are Americans so fearful lately, and why are our fears so often misplaced?
To both questions the same two-word answer is commonly given by scholars
and journalists: premillennial tensions. The final years of a millennium
and the early years of a new millennium provoke mass anxiety and ill
reasoning, the argument goes. So momentous does the calendric change
seem, the populace cannot keep its wits about it.
Premillennial tensions probably do help explain some of our collective
irrationality. Living in a scientific era, most of us grant the arbitrariness
of reckoning time in base-ten rather than, say, base-twelve, and from
the birth of Christ rather than from the day Muhammad moved from Mecca.
Yet even the least superstitious among us cannot quite manage to think
of the year 2000 as ordinary. Social psychologists have long recognized
a human urge to convert vague uneasiness into definable concerns, real
or imagined. In a classic study thirty years ago Alan Kerckhoff and
Kurt Back pointed out that "the belief in a tangible threat makes
it possible to explain and justify one’s sense of discomfort."
Some historical evidence also supports the hypothesis that people panic
at the brink of centuries and millennia. Witness the "panic terror"
in Europe around the year 1000 and the witch hunts in Salem in the 1690s.
As a complete or dependable explanation, though, the millennium hypothesis
fails. Historians emphasize that panics of equal or greater intensity
occur in odd years, as demonstrated by anti-Indian hysteria in the mid
1700s and McCarthyism in the 1950s. Scholars point out too that calendars
cannot account for why certain fears occupy people at certain times
(witches then, killer kids now).
Another popular explanation blames the news media. We have so many
fears, many of them off-base, the argument goes, because the media bombard
us with sensationalistic stories designed to increase ratings. This
explanation, sometimes called the media-effects theory, is less simplistic
than the millennium hypothesis and contains sizable kernels of truth.
When researchers from Emory University computed the levels of coverage
of various health dangers in popular magazines and newspapers they discovered
an inverse relationship: much less space was devoted to several of the
major causes of death than to some uncommon causes. The leading cause
of death, heart disease, received approximately the same amount of coverage
as the eleventh-ranked cause of death, homicide. They found a similar
inverse relationship in coverage of risk factors associated with serious
illness and death. The lowest-ranking risk factor, drug use, received
nearly as much attention as the second-ranked risk factor, diet and
Disproportionate coverage in the news media plainly has effects on
readers and viewers. When Esther Madriz, a professor at Hunter College,
interviewed women in New York City about their fears of crime they frequently
responded with the phrase "I saw it in the news." The interviewees
identified the news media as both the source of their fears and the
reason they believed those fears were valid. Asked in a national poll
why they believe the country has a serious crime problem, 76 percent
of people cited stories they had seen in the media. Only 22 percent
cited personal experience.
When professors Robert Blendon and John Young of Harvard analyzed forty-seven
surveys about drug abuse conducted between 1978 and 1997, they too discovered
that the news media, rather than personal experience, provide Americans
with their predominant fears. Eight out of ten adults say that drug
abuse has never caused problems in their family, and the vast majority
report relatively little direct experience with problems related to
drug abuse. Widespread concern about drug problems emanates, Blendon
and Young determined, from scares in the news media, television in particular.
Television news programs survive on scares. On local newscasts, where
producers live by the dictum "if it bleeds, it leads," drug,
crime, and disaster stories make up most of the news portion of the
broadcasts. Evening newscasts on the major networks are somewhat less
bloody, but between 1990 and 1998, when the nation’s murder rate
declined by 20 percent, the number of murder stories on network newscasts
increased 600 percent (not counting stories about O. J. Simpson).
After the dinnertime newscasts the networks broadcast newsmagazines,
whose guiding principle seems to be that no danger is too small to magnify
into a national nightmare. Some of the risks reported by such programs
would be merely laughable were they not hyped with so much fanfare:
"Don’t miss Dateline tonight or YOU could be the next victim!"
Competing for ratings with drama programs and movies during prime-time
evening hours, newsmagazines feature story lines that would make a writer
for "Homicide" or "ER" wince.
"It can happen in a flash. Fire breaks out on the operating table.
The patient is surrounded by flames," Barbara Walters exclaimed
on ABC’s "20/20" in 1998. The problem-oxygen
from a face mask ignited by a surgical instrument-occurs "more
often than you might think," she cautioned in her introduction,
even though reporter Arnold Diaz would note later, during the actual
report, that out of 27 million surgeries each year the situation arises
only about a hundred times. No matter, Diaz effectively nullified the
reassuring numbers as soon as they left his mouth. To those who "may
say it’s too small a risk to worry about" he presented distraught
victims: a woman with permanent scars on her face and a man whose son
The gambit is common. Producers of TV newsmagazines routinely let emotional
accounts trump objective information. In 1994 medical authorities attempted
to cut short the brouhaha over flesh-eating bacteria by publicizing
the fact that an American is fifty-five times more likely to be struck
by lightning than die of the suddenly celebrated microbe. Yet TV journalists
brushed this fact aside with remarks like, "whatever the statistics,
it’s devastating to the victims" (Catherine Crier on "20/20"),
accompanied by stomach-turning videos of disfigured patients.
Sheryl Stolberg, then a medical writer for the Los Angeles Times, put
her finger on what makes the TV newsmagazines so cavalier: "Killer
germs are perfect for prime time," she wrote. "They are
invisible, uncontrollable, and, in the case of Group A strep, can invade
the body in an unnervingly simple manner, through a cut or scrape."
Whereas print journalists only described in words the actions of "billions
of bacteria" spreading "like underground fires" throughout
a person’s body, TV newsmagazines made use of special effects
to depict graphically how these "merciless killers" do their
In Praise of Journalists
Any analysis of the culture of fear that ignored the news media
would be patently incomplete, and of the several institutions most
culpable for creating and sustaining scares the news media are arguably
first among equals. They are also the most promising candidates
for positive change. Yet by the same token critiques such as Stolberg’s
presage a crucial shortcoming in arguments that blame the media.
Reporters not only spread fears, they also debunk them and criticize
one another for spooking the public. A wide array of groups, including
businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects, and political
parties, promote and profit from scares. News organizations are
distinguished from other fear-mongering groups because they sometimes
bite the scare that feeds them.
A group that raises money for research into a particular disease
is not likely to negate concerns about that disease. A company that
sells alarm systems is not about to call attention to the fact that
crime is down. News organizations, on the other hand, periodically
allay the very fears they arouse to lure audiences. Some newspapers
that ran stories about child murderers, rather than treat every
incident as evidence of a shocking trend, affirmed the opposite.
After the schoolyard shooting in Kentucky the New York Times ran
a sidebar alongside its feature story with the headline "Despite
Recent Carnage, School Violence Is Not on Rise." Following
the Jonesboro killings they ran a similar piece, this time on a
recently released study showing the rarity of violent crimes in
Several major newspapers parted from the pack in other ways. USA Today
and the Washington Post, for instance, made sure their readers knew
that what should worry them is the availability of guns. USA Today ran
news stories explaining that easy access to guns in homes accounted
for increases in the number of juvenile arrests for homicide in rural
areas during the 1990s. While other news outlets were respectfully quoting
the mother of the thirteen-year-old Jonesboro shooter, who said she
did not regret having encouraged her son to learn to fire a gun ("it’s
like anything else, there’s some people that can drink a beer
and not become an alcoholic"), USA Today ran an op-ed piece proposing
legal parameters for gun ownership akin to those for the use of alcohol
and motor vehicles. And the paper published its own editorial in support
of laws that require gun owners to lock their guns or keep them in locked
containers. Adopted at that time by only fifteen states, the laws had
reduced the number of deaths among children in those states by 23 percent.