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Sarah Zibanejadrad

April 1, 2009
Research Paper

Breaking News: The Debilitating Effects of Gratuitous Violence in the News

Gunman Slaughters 12 in Small-Town Shooting. Rapist Terrorizes Metro Area.

Explosion Downtown Kills 3, Injures 90. Headlines such as these are painted across newspapers,

televisions, and online homepages every day. It is a well-known fact that they draw attention and

increase ratings for the news producers, however what effect do they have on the news

consumer? Studies on gratuitous violence in news media have only been prominent in the past

decade, however the use of salacious headlines are nearly a news staple and have been since the

early days of newspaper. These studies were able to prove without question that the long-term

effects of pervasive violence in news media have led to an increase of fear amongst the general

public that the scenarios detailed in the news are commonplace and can happen to them. Despite

the increase in fear, audiences have also been desensitized to violence causing the media to use

even more superfluous violence to maintain ratings and viewership since the initial shock value

has worn off. Because consumers of media incorporate a large, varied audience, children are also

amongst the victims of hyper-violent news stories in the media.

Literature Review
In Smith and Wilson’s 2002 study on children’s comprehension of and fear reactions to

television news, 125 children divided between two groups based on age level (kindergarten

through third grade and fourth grade through sixth grade) and asked a series of questions

concerning the news. Both age groups detailed that they were frightened by the news, however

the older group gathered from the news that crime was resonant in every community, especially

their own, and found a wider array of news stories to be “scary.” This is perhaps because the

older the children get, the more they can identify themselves as potentially affected by violence,

as well as have a greater knowledge of what poses a threat to them. Another study by Moyer-

Guse and Smith (2005) examined the effects of news coverage on the war in Iraq on child

development from a parent’s standpoint. This study also reflected the point that as children got

older, not only did they comprehend media more thoroughly, but they received heavier

repercussions on their mental health than younger children. For instance, younger children were

aware of the war and the fact that is a negative event, however older children believed that the

war would directly affect them and those around them (family, friends, community) and they

worried that war was going to happen in their own country. Overall, though, children were most

affected by news stories that they found the most applicable to them, such as on kidnapping.

In relation to cultivation theory, children who were exposed to news stories on missing

people more regularly, the more they became frightened as opposed to desensitized and claimed

that they were afraid they could become a victim. Children were not the only ones affected by

these news stories, since the parents surveyed believed they felt a greater fright response. Despite

the belief that adults should have a more developed coping strategy, the parents surveyed

believed that there was no method of dealing with this fear other than monitoring their children

more closely (Marske, Martins, & Wilson, 2005). Overall, the study was able to conclude that
how much the parent was affected by negative news media was pertinent to how often the

individual watched the news, whether the story was high-profile (for instance, the media

coverage of Caylee Anthony this past year), and how closely they paid attention to the stories.

The children, in turn, felt the effects in accordance to their parents’ absorption of the media and

how they coped with it, as well as how the parents’ method of parenting influenced their

childhood development. Other studies (Buijzen, Sondij, & Walma Van Der Molen, 2007)

suggest that the child is trained to absorb media according to parents mediation of that media:

active mediation reduces the fear response, whereas restrictive mediation in turn has the opposite

effect. Overall, though, all of the studies referenced concluded that ultimately how often and to

what degree a fear-response is elicited from an adult or a child concerning an event is dependent

on how often the individual is exposed to violent news media.

As with anything, how viewers process and encode news media varies with each

individual. However, in Leshner and Miller’s (2007) study on patterns of viewers’ reactions to

negative emotional news media were extremely repetitive in that nearly all of those involved in

the study reacted the same way to the three variables of stories: live, breaking, and emotional. In

response to negative, emotional stories, all of the viewers noted that their response was either

“fear” or “disgust.” The “disgust” response had to do with how the story was encoded and in turn

caused the viewer to disregard any later sources that pertained to the initial news story. As for

“breaking” or “live” news, “fear” was a more prevalent reaction in that the viewers felt as if they

did not have enough time to absorb the information and they felt it was more urgent. Therefore,

if the news story is labeled as “breaking” or “live,” the viewer only reacts more strongly to the

story with “fear” or “disgust,” in turn strengthening the effect of fear in this case.
A way of increasing the effect of fear amongst audience members is by victimizing a

specific group of people, in turn profiting off of group identities. Extensive research has been

conducted concerning how media affects stereotypes concerning race and gender, as well as how

members of a specific race or gender is affected by media consumption. In Liebler’s (2008)

review of how the news scares women in order to increase readership, it is concluded that the

news media victimizes women in order to make them feel that the news is a helpful tool to

protect them, when instead it is merely profiting off of their intensified fear and belief that all

women at some point will be the target for attack. This research can also be adapted from gender

to race in that the media usually targets specific races and ethnic groups (namely Black and

Middle Eastern people) as the culprit, which is highly dependent on the framing of the newscast.

Fear, however, is not the only result of these newscasts. They also have larger societal

repercussions that cause and maintain rifts amongst certain groups, as they merely perpetuate

negative stereotypes towards specific groups of people.

Framing is an essential tool in any news story and is initially what grabs the news

consumer’s attention. Depending on how the story is framed, though, the effects of fear can be

greatly intensified (Schudson, 2007). Framing can ultimately put a negative spin on stories,

which is usually what news directors prefer since negative spins usually pull in higher readership

or more viewers. The use of framing also relies on preset schemas and stereotypes to play on

preconceived fears in order to maintain the consumer’s attention, as well. For instance, after

9/11, there were an increase in news stories focusing on terrorist attacks and Muslim people, in

turn playing on Americans preconceived correlation between “Muslims” and “terrorists.”

The United States is not the only country to feel the repercussions of fear due to the

media’s use of stereotypes. A study done in Israel (Slone & Shoshani, 2006) examined the
broadcasts of terrorism in Israel and its effects on beliefs concerning what defines a terrorist

group, as well as how the story affects levels of anxiety amongst those studied. The news stories

used played off of group identification theory and how that affected the amount of fear felt

overall by the individuals in the study. According to post-test results, people felt as if their level

of fear could be lessened by specific public preparatory measures and overall preparedness

amongst the population. The individuals in the study also felt as if media messages that

concerned terrorism were in fact helpful, whereas the researchers disagreed in that in only

intensified overall anxiety of the population.

In Barry Glasner’s (1999) book The Culture of Fear, he likens high-profile news media

stories to Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds” in that people suddenly fear the

improbable. Glasner compares modern-day news stories to the textbook definition of

propaganda: card-stacking against certain areas or races, using bandwagon to make it seem that

everyone is affected, testimonial from not-so-expert sources, and transfer from major past events

to illicit the same response and reiterate the belief that the event repeating itself is probable.

Glasner also states that: “Ultimately, though, neither the ploys that narrators use nor what Cantril

termed ‘the sheer dramatic excellence’ of their presentations fully accounts for why people in

1938 swallowed a tale about martians taking over New Jersey or why people today buy into tales

about perverts taking over cyber-space, Uzi-toting employees taking over workplaces, heroin

dealers taking over middle-class suburbs, and so forth.” His point overall is that news sources

make it a point not to focus on the novelty of the story, rather to profit on the novelty by making

people feel as if by absorbing the information, they will somehow be prepared for “when” the

event takes place again, however the events they focus the most on rarely ever happen. The rarity
of the subject is why people are so malleable by the news story and therefore feel stronger effects

because of the story and the repetition of the coverage.

Future Research

For later research, it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the

increased use of fear in media and the increase in diagnosed anxiety disorders in the United

States. Although, this research would be purely based of psychological research and relies on the

information of diagnosed anxiety disorders, it would be interesting to see if there is in fact a

correlation. The study would have to rely on psychological evaluations of therapist’s patients, as

well as the statistics of anxiety medications prescribed by psychiatrists. Unfortunately, this could

possibly lead to inconclusive information since not everyone who needs to see a mental specialist

does, along with the fact that there are more anxiety prescriptions available to the general public

today in comparison to fifty years ago. Therefore, it is difficult to say if it would be possible to

examine the true psychological effects that the use of fear in the media has had on society.

Another interesting study could be if the use of sex in the media and if it has had an effect on

teen pregnancy within the fifty years. This would be a case study and would examine the

correlation between the images and advertisements used in the media at that point in time (say,

every ten years) and the number of teen pregnancies. Again, this could be difficult to do in that

fifty years ago teen pregnancy was not discussed and therefore might not be well-documented.

Conclusions and Interpretations


By looking at the totality of the conclusions of each of the studies mentioned, it is easy to

gather that the obscene amount of violence used in the media today, namely the news, is only a

detriment to society. Among causing people to believe in the improbable will happen to them

and that crime is more common than it truly is statistically, it also victimizes people according to

their group identity. However this is a bullet that has already been shot: It cannot be retracted

once the trigger is pulled and anyone in the line of fire is hurt. According to the totality of the

research used, people have already felt the effects and are becoming more desensitized, which

only causes a snowball effect for the increase in the use of fear as time goes on. It is without

question that the long-time tradition of the use of gratuitous violence in news media in order to

sell salacious stories has taken its toll on mental health and overall level of happiness of society.

By why do we continue to buy into the use of fear, even after we know its detrimental effect?

Because much like a car crash, once you’ve glanced at the horror, you can’t stop staring.