Beware of Media Fear-Mongering

We are living in the most paranoid fear-mongering time in human history

The news media is a billion-dollar industry. The more readers and viewers, the more advertising revenue. It is all about ratings and profits. To increase ratings the media sensationalizes and distorts the news. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Fear is worth billions. Fear-mongering by news media is rampant. The media creates false fear by exaggerating negative news, distorting news, and even fabricating news. We are inundated with “fake news.” “And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.” (Barry Glassner, College President and Leading Sociologist.)

Typical examples of the media fear-mongering, by exaggerating or fabricating dangers, include:  

  • Natural disasters
  • Shark attacks
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Plane crashes
  • Mass shootings
  • Carcinogens
  • Pesticides
  • Diseases
  • Climate change
  • Product contamination and tampering

Media fear-mongering has even led to war

In 1898, the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. The explosion was caused by the ship’s coal bunkers and boiler. However, American newspapers screamed “sabotage,” and repeated the slogan, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” With the constant drumbeat of media fear-mongering (“yellow journalism,”) the tidal wave of public opinion led us into the Spanish American War. (See: Tom Miller, “Remembering the Maine,” Smithsonian Magazine, Feb. 1998; “USS Maine,” Wikipedia)

Reality Check: we are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history

Fear-mongering by the media creates false perceptions. Unfortunately, people live based on the perception, not on the reality.  

Reality check: “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history. Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it’s been in decades, and violent crime has been trending down since 1991.” (Barry Glassner)

The Media Myth of Halloween Candy Tampering

One most famous example of media fear-mongering involves tampered Halloween candy.

There has not been a single verified injury or death caused by Halloween candy tampered by a stranger. Folklorists, scholars, and law enforcement have repeatedly tried to debunk this myth.

  • First, the media has blamed candy tempering for deaths from natural causes that coincidentally took place around Halloween.
  • Second, sometimes friends or family members have blamed tampered Halloween candy to avoid criminal liability for their own negligent or malicious actions.
  • Third, sometimes the candy is tampered with by a friend or family member as a practical joke.

Despite the truth, millions of Americans have stopped trick-or-treating and instead attend Halloween events at churches, community centers or retail stores. Despite the reality, 60% of parents still fear their children might be injured or killed because of Halloween candy sabotage. Basically, media fear-mongering ruined Halloween for children.

Media fear-mongering in 2020 was rampant

The 2020 Pandemic

The 2020 media fear-mongering was worse than I could have imagined. The hype by the media and politicians has resulted in extreme lockdowns and stay-at- home orders. For example, we judges were under “house arrest” while the prisoners were released to run amok.

Politicians closed down “non-essential businesses” and elementary schools based on fear and perception, not science and reality. Politicians exacerbated the problem by “selective enforcement.” For example, dental offices were closed but marijuana shops were open. The entertainment industry was “essential,” but houses of worship were not.

The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020

Media fear-mongering caused the infamous toilet paper shortage of 2020. The media speculated that the virus might cause problems in the production and supply chain of toilet paper. There was no such problem. There was no shortage. However, the exaggerated media fear triggered panic buying and hording, which did cause a shortage.

The Infamous Bottled Water Shortage of 2020

Media fear-mongering caused the infamous bottled water shortage of 2020. Water treatment methods throughout the world kill viruses. U.S. water systems are required to be protected from contamination by viruses by using disinfectants like chlorine, ozone, and ultra-violet light. Nevertheless, the media spread the rumor about contamination of the water supply. Hence, the infamous bottled water shortage of 2020.

“Murder Hornet” Invasion

The media hyped the “Murder Hornet” invasion. This caused people to believe that all the bees would be “murdered” thus destroying the food crops leading to mass starvation.

Exaggerated fears about the pandemic

Because the media has exaggerated the risks and lethality of Covid, and fear-mongering by “crying wolf,” there has been a backlash. Even though the pandemic is worldwide, Covid-deniers believe was a conspiracy to hurt Donald Trump’s election. Anti-maskers claimed that masks decreased oxygen and increased carbon dioxide causing brain damage and death. Anti-vaxxers argue that the “miracle” vaccines are more dangerous than Covid itself.

Exaggerated fears about riots and anarchy

The media hyped the scope of anarchists, BLM, and Antifa riots. This has been a major problem in the downtown section of only a handful of cities. But the fear-mongering triggered panic buying and hording of guns and ammunition, which has resulted in shortages.

Exaggerated claims about violent racist cops

Because of a handful of violent white police officers, the media has exaggerated the extent of the problem and created a widespread perception of systemic police racism. Although tragic, only a handful of black unarmed people are killed by police each year. There are always “bad apples” in every profession. This perception ignores the great tragedy of thousands more African Americans are killed each year by blacks.

Exaggerated claims about 2020 election fraud

Media (especially social media) exaggerated the problem of election fraud and mistakes in the 2020 presidential election. There has always some fraud and mistakes in elections. The question is whether the fraud and/or mistakes affected the outcome of the election.

This is like basketball and football games. There are always “bad calls.” But those calls rarely affect the outcome of the game.

For example, Biden won the 2020 election by wide margin of over 7 million votes. The electoral college margin was 306-232. When Trump won in 2016 with a narrower margin, he called his win a “landslide.” It is doubtful there were over 7 million votes for Trump that were not counted, or over 7 million fraudulent votes for Biden. In fact, some local audits gave more votes to Biden.

If people believe the election was “stolen,” this could seriously undermine credibility and support for the government and the rule of law. It could even trigger violence.

Fears that President Trump won’t leave the White House

The media spread fear that if President Trump lost the election, he would remain in the White House, by force if necessary, and rule as a dictator.

Caveat: There Might Really Be a Wolf at the Door

Don’t reject potential dangers just because the media engages in exaggeration and fear-mongering.  Just because the media hypes dangers, this does not mean that the dangers do not exist.  The media hype is like “the boy who cried wolf.” The wolf did come eventually, and the people who ignored the warning suffered.

The media was hyping the danger of the coronavirus. This was fear-mongering at its finest. However, the potential for pandemic was very real. We need to exercise common sense and caution.

 (See: “Poisoned Candy Myths,” Wikipedia; “Why Were Living in the Age of Fear: This is the safest time in human history. So why are we all so afraid?” Neil Straus quoting Barry Glassner, Rolling Stone Magazine, Oct. 6, 2016; “If it Bleeds, It Leads” Understanding Fear-Based Media, Psychology Today, Jun. 7, 2011; Tobias Stockwell, “This is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit,” Media Medium, Jul 4, 2017, http://www.medium.com; Steven Pinker, “The Media Exaggerates Negative News,” The Guardian, Feb 17, 2018 http://www.theguardian.com; “Fear Mongering,” Wikipedia)

(The original article was the most popular post of 2020)

5 thoughts on “Beware of Media Fear-Mongering

  1. In general I agree, but I do think that it is interesting that actually health officials have been using the media hype about coronavirus on purpose. Not because of it being particularly deadly to the general population, but they wanted to make sure people didn’t dismiss it at the beginning so it wouldn’t gain traction and become a common recurring virus like the flu that can no longer be eradicated because of how widespread it has become. Unfortunately, it looks like they think now it might be too late and that it may be something that we have to deal with on a yearly basis.

    Anyway just my two cents. 😊

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  2. Great article and factual ice breaker for those that are just now learning about how dishonest and misleading the mainstream media has become on both sides of the pond and beyond. Virtually no truthful news exists and hasn’t for a long time. Its very important for each and every one of us to do our own independent research of current events and hearing both sides and drawing our own conclusions based on our research. To take at face value what is being broadcasted is intellectual and informational suicide.

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    1. Great response. I wrote that article before the pervasive fear-mongering frenzy on coronavirus. I have two supplemental draft articles from months ago on fear-mongering by politicians and fear-mongering by special interests. Maybe I’ll start working on those again.

      Like

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