Storytelling and the Kingdom of Fear

“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear—fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.”

Hunter S. Thompson —”Extreme Behavior in Aspen,” February 3, 2003

In similar veins of exploration to previous posts on storytelling and surveillance, this post will seek to examine how the stories told in our 24-hour media culture affect our vision of the world; our perceived reality. As previously discussed, storytelling plays a large part in cultural transmission and learning. So what affects are seen when we embed ourselves in an environment of stories about disaster, disease, death and terrorism?

According to a Gallup Poll done is 2007, 7 out of 10 Americans thought that crime was worse than it was in the previous year. This, in fact, was quite of out sync with reality. Data collected by the FBI and Department of Justice Bureau and Justice Statistics reported violent and property crime to be at historic lows.

In 1998, Florida State University School of Criminology and Justice completed a study correlating perceived fear of crime to television coverage of crime. The report cited Gallup polls that showed that about 3%-6% of people considered crime to be a major societal problem, a figure that held steady for decades. However, the number began to creep up in the 1990s, and jumped from 9% to 54% between 1993 and 1994, correlating with a 400% increase in the amount of time television networks dedicated to covering crime. Further, the study showed that people who watched the news 7 or more times a week had a fear rate that was double those who did not watch so much coverage of crime.

An article published by the New York Times in 2005 revealed that many tales of legions of armed looters, people shooting at helicopters and gangs of rapists terrorizing shelters were wildly exaggerated, if not entirely false. Of course, there were problems with looting and crime, but not to the degree was reported. What is more interesting is that these tales and rumors, after they head spread two or three degrees away from the source, were accepted as fact. Further, the rumors-turned-fact changed the responses from authorities. Some medical evacuation efforts were delayed in fear of volatile and hostile streets, and some police officers quit on the spot after hearing rumors of hundreds of armed looters approaching.

“Anytime you put 25,000 people under one roof, with no running water, no electricity and no information, stories get told.”

­––Lt. David Benelli, NOPD

Dr. Mark Warr, a criminologist and professor of sociology, asserts that research conducted over the last three decades shows that the mass media is an amplifying mechanism that can lead to great misconceptions about the reality of crime.

“People are bombarded with information about crime from the media, which makes them believe the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is.”

–– Dr. Mark Warr

Storytelling has the power not only to pass on cultural knowledge and make up a good portion of social learning, but also to augment the perceived reality we live in.

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