Stay alert against media fear-mongering

Right-wing news exploits fear to further agenda

It is no secret that publications such as The Sun tabloid or television programs such as Fox News have a right-wing bias.

Indeed, every journalist has a bias, and it is wrong to pretend otherwise.

Readers and consumers of news media must always be aware that these biases exist, and evaluate the news reporting they consume with a critical eye.

However, certain news media organizations have a very specific and thinly veiled agenda, which is to make people afraid.

Why? Because fear leads to support of right-wing policies and political parties.

This is explained by terror management theory - the theory of how humans cope with persistent reminders of death and their own mortality, such as through high levels of media coverage of violence and murder.

This psychological explanation of the link between fear and leaning rightward on the political spectrum is something every news media consumer should understand.

The first aspect of terror management theory is the anxiety-buffer hypothesis, which states that high self-esteem acts as a natural buffer against anxiety.

The second aspect is the mortality salience hypothesis, which states that persistent reminders of human mortality will result in people attempting to further reinforce those social and cultural beliefs that they already endorse.

This serves to increase self-esteem (by confirming that they are right or correct), and to augment their sense of physical and emotional security.

The result of this phenomenon on one’s attitudes toward other people is the reinforcement of the “them versus us,” in-group versus out-group mentality.

People will have a more positive reaction toward those who support and align with their own culture, religion, nationality, values, lifestyle, social status or worldview, and a more negative reaction toward those who do not.

People will also tend to support social policies that reward the virtuous in-group members and punish the wrong-thinking out-group members.

It logically follows that exposure to reminders of one’s own mortality increases an individual’s support for the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice.

An increase in police presence and in the prison population aim to create safety for the dominant, middle-class, homogeneous majority of the population by protecting its members from those who often find themselves entangled in the justice system: the poor, who are often ethnic minorities and have been historically oppressed by the dominant culture.

Instead of understanding the complex condition of poverty which often leads to criminal behaviour, and acting to address the root causes of poverty, an individual who has been made to feel fearful for his or her own safety is more inclined to think inwardly in terms of protecting his or herself and the in-group to which he or she belongs from the out-group of the poor.

The stories of violence and crime that are widely reported often take an angle that promotes fear of the “other” in society.

This is at the expense of thinking outwardly about society as a whole and leads to opposition of policies that benefit people who are different, in this case the poor and marginalized.

The mortality salience theory also explains why individuals who have been repeatedly exposed to stories of violence and crime in the media become less tolerant of other cultures and their unique practices.

These individuals are less likely to support policies that are socially libertarian because they feel threatened by people who are different.

Their self-esteem anxiety buffer is threatened when they feel that the dominance and superiority of their own culture is being diminished by acceptance of alternate cultures.

This makes them feel as though their own identity is being compromised, which makes them feel unsafe.

Media sources whose editors and producers are members of the dominant culture benefit from societal homogeneity and uniformity. Although they are likely unaware of the influence of mortality salience, as it operates largely on an unconscious level, they are fully aware that fear is an extremely powerful emotion and they exploit it to its fullest.

The stories of violence and crime that are widely reported often take an angle that promotes fear of the “other” in society.

Therefore, they promote opposition to economically social and socially libertarian policies that attempt to decrease the disparity between dominant and oppressed people and cultures.

As long as we understand the psychology behind the deliberately manipulative tactics of sensationalist, far-right media sources, we can brace ourselves against the impact that their constant and disproportionate coverage of violence and crime can have in skewering our worldview and our feelings about people who are different from us.

We must not be made afraid to leave our homes and we must not be made to care more about our own personal safety than about other people.

Stay aware and stay critical.

Katerina Tefft is a fourth-year honours politics student at the University of Winnipeg and The Uniter’s comments editor.

Published in Volume 67, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 17, 2012)

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