Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis

Article excerpt

Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. David Altheide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2002. 223 pp. $26.95 pbk.

Crisis sometimes seems to be a defining aspect of modern social life. The globe careens from crisis to crisis, lurching from terrorism to war to natural disaster to famine to political upheaval, in unceasing waves of catastrophe and calamity.

Ironic beneficiaries of these crisis-laden times are the news media. Crisis has become a staple of the news menu and the news diet. During times of crisis, the news media attract interest, build audiences, boost ratings, and increase circulation.

Is it too cynical to suggest that the news media encourage, generate, or even create crises to legitimize their standing and attract and hold readers and viewers? David Altheide thinks not.

Altheide is Regents' Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Arizona State University. He is a former president of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, and much of his work explores how the media symbolically construct and define reality for viewers and readers. His work includes Media Logic with Robert Snow (1979); Media Power (1985); and Media Worlds in the Postjournalism Era, also with Robert Snow (1991).

In this most recent book, the title is taken quite literally. Altheide says his "book is about fear and its expanding place in our public life." He argues that the news media create a "discourse of fear," a discourse that suggests danger and risk abound and that the world is something to be dreaded.

Readers familiar with the "scary world" research of George Gerbner and his Annenberg colleagues will recognize the larger argument. People who spend a lot of time watching television news are more fearful of crime, violence, and mayhem than those who do not watch as much television.

Altheide's research, however, is nowhere near as detailed and nuanced as Gerbner's cultural indicators group. He offers a method he calls "tracking discourse," which takes a keyword and follows its use by the news across time. He sees this as a variant of frame analysis, an exploration of the context in which key terms are employed and to what purpose.

Of course, the term Altheide pursues is fear. He traces the "career" of fear, how the nature and use of the word have changed since the 1980s, how fear moves over time across stories of race, AIDS, sex, crime, sexuality, and other subjects. …