Attack of the Media Monster



written by JACKSON HAYES


Late on a Tuesday evening this past March, an ambulance roared down Coxwell Ave. toward Toronto East General Hospital. An elderly couple in the back, recently back from Bangladesh, had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms and needed medical attention.

 After pulling under the covered entrance of the emergency room the two were greeted by hospital staff wearing masks, gloves and yellow, translucent hospital gowns. According to a hospital spokesperson, the response was standard for any incoming patient with a respiratory illness. But somewhere along the way, someone mentioned H5N1 and a media storm was unleashed.

Twenty-four-hour radio stations continually mentioned the story throughout the night and it topped early morning television news shows as citizens not far removed from the SARS epidemic awoke to the potential of another respiratory disaster. Of course, in just over 12 hours it was revealed the couple were suffering from the common flu and there was no reason to be afraid.

But it was too late for that.

Although the term ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ has been a staple in newsrooms for decades, it appears the catalyst behind that macabre idiom has changed. It’s not which stories are told. Plane crashes, killer bees and pandemics will always shine above the fold or lead the newscast. It is how that news is packaged that has changed. The advent of 24-hour news coverage has given birth to ominous musical alerts and a phantasmagoria of graphics that many argue has fed into a global culture afraid of the who, what, where, when and why.

Now more than ever the idea of an uncertain future seems like a palpable inevitability. Environmental experts warn of climate tipping points, avian flu is lurking in the hen houses of backwater nations, and the word terrorism has nearly become clichéd. And while those problems do exist, David L. Altheide says the media is doing more damage than good by constantly reporting it.

The sociologist and Arizona State Regents professor has spent decades studying the media and its presentation of news and has published numerous books and academic papers on the topic. A recurring theme of his critiques has been an argument that news has become more entertainment oriented.

“The main idea is to really appeal to audiences. And it’s just not making information interesting, it’s actually intended to make it entertaining,” he says in his Tempe, Arizona office before class recently.

 “In any place that stresses competition among media, you’re vying for different pieces of the audience so you’ve got to find things that not only the audience is interested in, you’ve got to take things that maybe they weren’t interested in and make it entertaining.”

In his 2006 essay The Mass Media, Crime and Terrorism, Altheide muses on how media have promoted terrorism and increased anxiety by “stressing fear and an uncertain future.” A concept he now believes to have increased tremendously since then.

He asserts the media has created a network of dread by continuously broadcasting fearful imagery and messages related to crime using manufactured productions that tend “to be evocative, encapsulated, highly thematic, familiar to audiences and easy to use.”

“Just think of the different ways we use terrorism today. It’s a cliché because terrorism just doesn’t refer to a strategy or even a tactic. It refers to a condition of the world, a state of being. So the notion is we now live in a terrorist world and with that comes certain temporal assumptions,” he says.

“Things are very uncertain, you never know when things are going to happen, but it will happen so that means that citizens are not just citizens but citizen-victims. We are victims in waiting as one author put it.”

Altheide is not alone.

Anthropologist and University of Toronto professor Leslie Chan has noticed modern news’ shift to a more terrifying approach in reporting. “Everywhere you go, it’s not just in news now . . .  you are constantly reminded that you should be fearful.”

 Chan, who teaches about the impact of new media on social practices, says he has seen ‘constant coverage’ alter reporting over his 10-years teaching.

He believes the competition for viewers has forced many of the 24-hour news outlets to pander for ratings with violent and gossip oriented programming and cites the aforementioned avian flu scare as proof.

“Even a story where they say ‘you shouldn’t worry about it, there is nothing to worry about.’  The way they put it is like ‘oh you should be really worried about it because something’s going on,’” he says.

Evidence suggesting a possible link between the culture of fear and the physical toll on the viewing public was published in January. The findings reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a journal published by the American Medical Association, indicated that living in fear might be hazardous to your health.

Researchers examined 2,729 (2,529 of whom completed the study) U.S. citizens after September 11. Health information taken before the attacks was compared with results over a three-year period following. According to results, being distressed about terrorism can prove more deadly than terrorists themselves.

“There’s an important role for perceived risk or for fear of future terrorism,” says Dr. Alison Holman, lead author of the study and professor of nursing sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

“When you have this sense of worry that’s going on and you’re afraid something’s going to happen and you’re being reminded about that in the public sphere on a regular basis, I don’t think that’s good for people.”

Findings indicated a 53 per cent increase in the diagnosis of new cardiovascular issues in the three years following 9/11. There was also a rise in hypertension among the more fearful participants.

Though the media was not mentioned as a direct cause in the study, Dr. Holman believes the manipulation of the terror alerts system by the U.S. government through mass communication is having a detrimental effect on the American public’s health.

“The fact that the ongoing worry made it worse, made the impact of acute stress on cardiovascular health worse, says to me that we really need to be very serious and think very hard about how we talk to people about terrorism in this country.”

While few would argue the North American mass media does not sensationalize the fearful stories, 680 AM news director Scott Metcalfe says the entire debate comes down to perspective.

A radioman for 31 years, Metcalfe runs Toronto’s only 24-hour news radio station from his, 5th floor office in the Rogers building on Bloor Street near the heart of the city.

When asked if his station’s familiar news alerts could be considered a scare tactic he casts his spectacled eyes to the ceiling in search of the answer.

“You’ve got somebody who might be sitting in an office in downtown Toronto at 10:30 in the morning, they’re not going to be leaving work till 5 o’clock . . . they’ve got 680 News on and they hear an alert that says ‘this just in,’ and we go on and we say the 401 is closed at the 400. What does that person say to themselves? [they say] ‘I don’t care,’” he says.

“There’s somebody on the 401 heading there and they hear that alert and they’re able to get off the highway and go around that problem and it saves them two or three hours of sitting in traffic. Guess how they feel about it? It’s all perception.”

He admits not everyone will agree with the usage of the breaking news alerts but contends, “some will find it to be useful information, it’ll mean something to them.”

For many critics of the media, fear mongering may not be the nature of the industry as a whole but the makeup of its parts. Documentary style news and lengthy feature work in newspapers and on television newsmagazine shows, still broadcast what some typify as scary content, but they have the space and the time to dig, gather and nurture stories.

Broadcasts classified as immediate cover the same content in a shorter time. Their format is the quick hit so they need to do what they can to reign in listeners.

Whatever the case, fearful stories, menacing graphics and foreboding news alerts may come part and parcel with telling stories in a contingent world.

Although Altheide does anticipate the fate of such actions.

 “One of the consequences of that is that they become a version of the parable of the little boy who cried wolf.”
But he adds, “some things are important and for the most part our news organizations haven’t really figured out what it is.”


Photo Illustration/Jackson Hayes