Several years ago (right around the time that Dubya took office), I decided that I just couldn’t stomach watching mainstream news. Since then, it’s given me the ability to take a more objective look at the types of stories that are presented in the media. Specifically, I’ve found that I’m more sensitized to all of the violence that is presented in national and local the news. The later, especially, focuses on exciting and sensationalized stories of brutal violence. To find examples, simply visit your local news station’s web site.
Even in small towns, you’ll find a large proportion of headlines focused on kidnappings, abductions, stabbings, and of course everyone’s favorite: Shootings. Exciting stuff, indeed. To add to the excitement, most stories will have pictures of loved ones, crying and explaining their “reaction to this horrible news.” Could it be more morbid? I mean, do we really have to hear first-hand how someone feels about their father, sister, or child being murdered? I can probably guess the reactions, without the five-second sound bites and the images of people in tears.
I’ve asked friends about why (and how) they can watch this stuff, day after day. Most will start by saying that they think it’s important to stay informed of what’s going on around them. Of course, the conversation is quickly ended when I ask why they have little to no interest in topics like science and technology. And wouldn’t you be better off just reading statistics? We can learn a lot about the weather without seeing pictures of people sweating in the heat or shivering in the cold.
Here are my theories:
- Reinforcing stereotypes: News stories often focus on under-privileged people to which many news watchers can’t relate. It helps create a comforting “us vs. them” attitude and allows viewers to reinforce their negative stereotypes.
- Instilling fear: As is evidence by horror films, instilling fear (especially when one is completely safe) can be exciting. Often, the more violent, the better. If you question this, look at how this has affected politics in the United States (PATRIOT Act, anyone?)
- Feeding morbid curiosity: The major cause of traffic slow-downs when there’s an accident is the phenomenon known as “rubber-necking” – people must crane their necks to get a personal, first-hand look at what’s going on. I’ve noticed these even when the real issue is a flat tire or an overheated engine. Local news stories about violence offer the same glimpse into morbid stories.
It’s well accepted that the primary purpose of popular media is to entertain (not to inform). I think the above are consistent with the goals. What am I missing?