Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis/Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs/The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things/Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking and Live from the Scene

By Whitney, Charles | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis/Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs/The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things/Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking and Live from the Scene


Whitney, Charles, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


* Altheide, David L. (2002). Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine DeGruyter. pp. 223.

* Fishman, Mark, and Cavender, Gray, eds. (1998). Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine DeGruyter. pp. 218.

* Glassner, Barry (1999). The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic Books, pp. 276.

* Lipschultz, Jeremy, and Hilt, Michael L. (2002). Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking and Live From the Scene. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 173.

Crime, fear, and fear of crime: It is no accident that four books on these topics appear in a comparatively brief span. All four of these volumes have something important to say about a modern crime and fear and why they-and we-both do, and should, care about the way journalists and those who educate them should approach these topics.

Three of these four books, all but Glassner, can be described as media-centric: their approaches to fear and crime begin with news and "reality" programming, and the large majority of Glassner's examples and evidence come from there as well.

Let us raise some questions: (1) If there is a contemporary fixation on crime and fear, why is there? (2) If this constitutes a social problem, what brought it into being and specifically, what roles do the media, particularly television, play in the social understandings and cultural importance of crime and fear? (3) Finally, is there some definable "problem" here for which these books offer remedies?

But first we should offer capsule summaries of each work:

In Creating Fear, Arizona State sociology professor David Altheide expands and extends a "media logic" thesis he has explored in a half-dozen books over the past quarter century. A "discourse of fear" (p. 2) pervades modern life and our ways of making sense of the world; it is a discourse promoted by political actors and especially by the media.

Entertaining Crime is a collection edited by Brooklyn College sociologist Mark Fishman and Gray Cavender, an Arizona State professor of justice studies. Its eleven essays all deal with televised crime reality programs, and one of its strengths is that it features work from three European countries while focusing primarily on the United States.

In The Culture of Fear, UCLA sociologist Barry Glassner (who more recently made a cameo appearance in Michael Moore's anti-gun documentary Bowling for Columbine) takes his subtitle seriously: we live in a fearful culture, and indeed there may be things we should be afraid of-but usually they're the wrong ones: road rage, school shootings, flesh-eating bacteria may all exist, but plenty of other risks are out there that are far more likely to do us in. Glassner's book abounds with nuggets and factoids that are almost irresistible for classroom use: one example (p. xxi): While the U.S. murder rate declined by 20 percent between 1990 and 1998, the number of murder stories on network news-excluding the O.J. Simpson case-increased 600 percent. And as Glassner and Lipschultz and Hilt, below, point out, local TV news is more crime-laden than the national news.

Jeremy Lipschultz and Michael T. Hilt, journalism professors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have written in Crime and Local Television News a nearly exhaustive textbook (it has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, graphics, and textbook-style boxes and inserts) on the topic, with useful chapters on subtopics such as coverage of courts, prisons, and capital punishment; crime and the elderly; and crime coverage and minorities.

Two caveats: Two of these books were written before September 11, 2001, and the other two were being completed; none can adequately come to grips with the events or their aftermath, but the two focusing on fear, Glassner and Altheide, hold up well in their generalizations about media roles in these crises. …

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