Trading on Fear: A Critical Review of Media Influence on the Masses

By Jennifer Kealy

The principle function of this essay is the examination of how news construction creates a social strength within a community. A fundamental characteristic of that control is the production of fear and dread. The mass media play a crucial role in all aspects of our daily life (Hoynes 2003: 15). The industry’s influential ability goes far beyond communicating a report of public concern. It educates us about our world, which shapes how we communicate our opinions with each other (Hoynes 2003:15). As a result, it has a strong sociological significance embedded within our culture. The production practices have produced an organisational media machine driven by selective news sources promoting terror (Altheide 2002:32). The discourse of alarm is symbolic to the awareness of danger in our environment. This is known as the “problem frame and the production of fear” (Altheide 2002: 41). Through a qualitative content analysis of the past five years of news coverage within The Daily Mail revealed the increase of the word fear in the headline. The obtained data from Lexis/Nexis highlighted the change of news focus from drug related violence, to recent reports concerning the fear of terror attacks and the increase of  gun crime. This analysis suggests that the use of fear in the media may have a connotation on social control. This critique aims to investigate news implications to society domination.

The majority of our knowledge is acquired through  the media’s coverage of current affairs. Yet, as the industry expands so does the role it plays within our social  beliefs. Fears become distorted along with our likings. The mass communication industry contributes to our definitions of situations in our social life (Altheide 2002:6). Consequently, the further coverage of terror increases public fears and anxieties. For that reason, journalists are gaining superior social control within the message formulation process. The foundation behind the journalistic message is rooted within reporting and repetition (Altheide 2006: 47). For instance, crime consumes a vast amount of media attention. There are endless amounts of criminology coverage from T.V programmes, news reports, and radio broadcasting. Undeniably, most of our information about criminal acts comes through the communications machine. Hence, it is explicable how it has come to play a significant role within social order (Franklin 1999:174).

Various practitioners including Frost, propose that reporting falls short from professional integrity. How the news is sourced becomes inferior to getting the perfect story. (Frost 2000:3). Writing production is imperative to its power behind social relations (Fairclough 1989:1). To elucidate, the coverage of crime is a contributor to the formulation of common public fears. The more coverage of violence within the community, the more the communal accept it as true.The socially constructed form of communication adapts to cultural demands (Conboy 2007: 5). How the headline is formatted presents direct feelings of anxiety within our society. The language used is a social design constructed around community concerns. The written word is central to many of our fears and it is “the medium in which those concerns are embedded” (Conboy 2007: 2)”. Journalists play a major part in the development of “social construction of reality” (Conboy 2007:5). Through common sense and everyday life, we consider language a simple instrument for the neutral reflection of the outside world (Ginneken 1998: 144). Nonetheless, that reflection is not always accurate. The use of images, suggestion and ambiguity soon becomes a powerful creation.

It is argued that headline constructions are a representation of reality within a semiotic coded structure. The semiotic signifier creates meaning through a system of signs and principles (Fourie 2006:107). The scientific theory emphasises the abstraction of language referring to a concept rather than a particular account (Curran 2005:58). For example, the words are not seen individually but are received as an overall message. Specific words are used to provoke images and thoughts, which then directs people’s opinions. This is clear when looking at the word EVIL in the news. It is immediately presumed the person in question fits an evil frame. Semioticians seek to recognize the production and interpretation of the meaning behind the coded system (Chandler 2007:148). Ferdinand de Saussure developed structuralism, a formation to understand the structure of language. The development discovered the relationship between words and how they sound. The method uses construction and convention to carry a meaning and perception. Journalists work is marked by the semiotic system and its techniques to communicate a message (Curran 2005: 58). Saussure considered language from a psychological and sociological point of view (Bignell 1997: 10). Each word is related to a coded system within our culture. The use of a carefully constructed headline can carry a very clear and precise message using this theory. Subsequently, tabloid editorials are made up of linguistic signs that have been selected and organised to reveal a significant account of social reality.

Furthermore, the language is central in deciding which topics should dominate the news. Reporters play a controversial role in influencing our perceptions (Mccombs 2004: 1). Through the agenda setting method they can control how we perceive certain situations (Mccombs 2004:1). This raises concerns about how much power is available to manipulate the mass. Practitioners including McCullagh consider the industry to be an unreliable dominant source (McCullagh 2002: 22). There is a longstanding argument surrounding the power behind the media and the ability to exercise influential authority. Nevertheless, the press seem to considerably manipulate our image of the world including our fears and concerns (Mccombs 2004: 19). The agenda setting function and the language design is seen as the actuality rather than the reality itself. The public’s reliance on the press to inform them of criminal acts helps aid this miss-representation.

These concerns suggest certain characteristics of the news are in jeopardy. One feature being the reflection of the outside world. To explain, the press can be described as a window to the world and like glass should be clear (McCullagh 2002: 14).  However, journalists are selective in the construction of the news. They notify the public on specific proceedings and dismiss other subjects. The ones they bring to light are engaging but may not be the most socially or politically significant (McCullagh 2002: 14). The sociological language of the news is “a form of social reality” (McCullagh 2002: 14). The agenda setting process presents the industry with control and power over information. Hence, it shapes our understandings of the globe. If the words and images used are biased and selective, then so will the perceptive of the story. Accordingly, the power of the media is the power to identify our sense of fears and apprehensions. Once this has been exposed the journalist is able to source fitting news features.    

The next process is the framing of the narrative. Not only are we supplied with the information but a perspective too. Primary research highlighted the encouragement from the tabloid industry to understand a story a certain way. This is seen in terror propaganda, which systematically influences public opinion. Terror reporting provokes fear and anger within a society. The designed suggestive words produce a governing ideology, representing shared anxieties. The coverage of British Soldiers fatality emphasizes the public’s grief, outrage and suffering. Words used like “Our Boys” and “Innocent victims” fuels that anger and public pain.  The opposition is framed as terrorists leaving us with the only option to resort to activist action. Yet, the exposure is mainly conducted from various interviews with family members of those who died. Therefore, the framing of the event can only be based on bias objectivity. Thus, it would be difficult for coverage to meet journalistic standards of balance, truth and objectivity in cases of extreme political conflict (Pippa 2003: 3). 

The conjectural perspective of terrorist’s events is commonly understood through news frames. The idea behind such method is to prioritise proceedings within a structured narrative. In most cases, the frame is shaped by three factors, including the basic facts, the government’s interpretation and communiqués manifestoes, press statements or interviews (Pippa 2003: 13). The three features aim to form an understanding of the happening by filling in the blanks of whom, what and why? Some of the reporting is neutral including the location and time. However, the majority is highly dominated and controlled. The choice of words exposes the tabloids perspective. The descriptive words such as murder, assassination and killing conjure up feelings of fear. The importance of specific words gives an influential power leading the essence of the story (Fourie 2006: 88). As a result, the debate lies with the journalist’s reliance on structural constructions to interpret incidents (Pippa 2003: 4). Even if exact details in political conflict may be unique, similar events and frames design it. News framing has become progressively more common giving the journalist a structured foundation (Pippa 2003: 11). The use of negative connotations assists in presenting the message. The essential nature of the frame is to select and prioritise certain facts to give one particular understanding. Subsequently, media framing can be seen as a power tool, which is achieving superior control over civilization.

One of the most pervasive forms of social control in our society is the mass media (Barak 1995: iv). The framing approach is highly effective because it joins basic emotional motivations. The structured narrative promoting fear achieves extensive social control. Through their socialisation function reinforces societal values. Yet, from learning from such materials we are creating the problem of misinterpretation. The reality of the matter is not accurately represented. Instead it has been developed to capture the minds and imaginations of the masses (Barak 1995: iv). The desire to entertain and make profit distorts the truth feeding our fascination for fear. News is characterized as “factual, neutral and objective” (Thomson 2008: 51). For that reason, the reporter’s voice should be based on moral principles. Nonetheless, this may seem a contradictory notion when considering the necessity to entertain and make money. Indeed, the definition of the good journalist is someone who gathers truthful information. Even so, the production process has a key purpose, which is to sell papers, influence and control.

The industry can be described as a simple form of messenger updating the mass of public interest. Yet, the public pay little attention to the recognition that the mass media in reality transform information and affect the behaviours of people (Critcher 2003: 131). The media has changed the image of fear for public entertainment and profit purposes. This explains the reason why some crimes are more likely to be reported than others (Critcher 2003: 131). As a result, the media are seen as a foundational feature of moral panics. It has operated as agents of moral annoyance. The reporting of certain facts can be sufficient to generate concern, anger and panic (Stanley 2002: 7). As a consequence, the news production has created common views, which is a distortion of social reality.

An illustration of modern media representation is today’s younger generation, linking them to criminal gang violence (Albertazzi 2010: 471). Following a collection of gang attacks in 2007-2008 including the killing of Rhys Jones generated a media whirl of dramatic headlines. Jones, who was killed by a juvenile hooded gunman prompted the crusade against youth gangs and action against anti-social behaviour. Four people aged between 15 and 19 were arrested with connection to the shooting. This added further worry of out of control youths. The spiralling alarm of rising levels of adolescence crime found a focus on the “hoodie (or hoody)” (Albertazzi 2010: 472). The slang term soon became regular use in the media to portray delinquent troublemakers. The repeated flow of coverage of gang members and the increase of gun crime brought together shared community values. As a result it became the foundation for intensity feelings of fear and moral panics within the society. People felt scared to go out at night and would rather walk on a different side of the road to a young person wearing a hood.

 Yet, from further inverstigation revealed that the media’s representation of the rise of gun crime did not match with the British Crime Survey (BCS) in 2008. The BCS plays an important role in supplying criminology information. The figures are taken from victims rather than criminals. This gives a more realistic account because not all crimes are reported. The analysis of the reported sufferers informs government policies by revealing levels of crime in England and Wales ( However, in a BBC news report in July 2008 failed to agree with the media’s allegation of the spiralling out of control gun crime associated with the hoodies. The online report by Dominic Casciani revealed graphs released by the BCS of crime statistics. This showed that youth offences were actually down (2008: BBC News). As the media continued to highlight the brutality of gun crimes in our neighbouring communities, the realism was a different matter.

It appears that societies are subject to moral panics from time to time.  It is evident the communications industry are the drivers behind such alarm. The mass media devotes a great deal of time reporting on matters of deviance, crime and scandals. The further coverage of fear and terror soon changes from an entertaining source to an educationally one shaping our ideas of evil (Cohen 2008: 8). As a result, the media are securing consumers who share the same values and ideas. The implications of such control are the misinterpretation of criminal acts, thus causing false public worry. Nonetheless, the industry continues to be the foundation of many debates of the real role of the media in people’s lives. It is hard to identify the true impact of media power and social control. Yet, the construction of moral panics in a modern era is far from a new phenomenon. The mass media has shaped public anxieties for centuries (Jewkes 2004: 86) and will continue to do so in to the future. 

List of References:

Albertazzi, D., Cobley, P. (2010) The Media an Introduction, Pearson Education Limited, England

Altheide, D. (2006) Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, The Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Lanham

Altheide, D. (2002) Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis, Walter De Gruyter Inc, New York

Barak, G. (1995) Media, Process and the social construction of Crime, Garland Publishers, USA

Bignell, J. (1997) Media Semiotics an Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester, England

Casciani, Dominic. (2008)

Conboy, M. (2007) The Language of The News, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon

Cohen, S. (2008) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Routledge, New York

Critcher, C. (2003) Moral Panics and the Media, Open University Press, Buckingham

Franklin, B. (1999) Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation, Routledge, New York

Frost, C. (2000) Media Ethics, Longman, Pearsons Education Limited, Essex

Gilbert, K., Heath, L (1996) Mass Media and Fear of Crime, Sage Publications, USA

Ginneken, V, J. (2003) Global News, Sage Publications, London

Home Office. (2009)

Jewkes, Y. (2004) Media and Crime, Sage Publications, London

Norris, P., Montague, K., and Marion, J. (2003) Framing Terrorism, Routledge, New York

Perse, M, E. (2002) Media Effects and Society, Lawrance Erlbaum Associate Inc, United Kingdom

Sanders, K. (2003) Ethics & Journalism, Sage Publications, London

  1. We are living in a fear based culture, but that is changing. We have more power than we think! It’s all about conscious thought and authentic action. IF you get a chance, check out my…

    Keep it up.

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