Some thoughts on media and fear

I wrote my post about my fear of running alone in the dark yesterday and published it knowing full well that I have many, many more thoughts on the relationship between the media and fear, especially when it comes to matters of personal safety and health.

I didn’t elaborate on them, though, because I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to denigrate the very real and honest fears women have about being attacked while running alone outside at night.  Because this is the thing – it does happen, and I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying it is when it does happen.

And even if a woman isn’t attacked, even if she is followed or hassled or has to deal with someone yelling derogatory things at her…well, that’s still pretty bad, actually.  Street harassment is a pretty serious problem that most women have to deal with at some point in their lives, and most of us don’t know how to handle it in a way that is satisfactory.  I mean, you can yell back and run the risk of being physically attacked, or you can stay silent and feel like you’ve been cowed, or you can just not go outside and then really feel like you’ve been beaten down.

So when you read everything I write after this, keep in mind that I am not trying to dismiss the very real problem of women’s safety in public spaces.

Rather, I’m trying to do my part to illuminate a part of our culture that plays an instrumental role in instilling fear in our hearts and our minds, and to help us engage in realistic risk assessment rather than letting ourselves become paralyzed by terror.

I work in news media, which means I get a different perspective on the role of news media in day-to-day lives than most people.   Crime is one of the biggest things we report on.  In fact, if you were to turn on the TV and watch us – or really, any other news station – you’d get the feeling you could walk outside anywhere in the United States and step into a blood-soaked war zone with bullets flying and gang wars unfolding in parks.

But this is the thing – murders, stabbings, stranger rapes and things like that are reported as newsworthy simply because they are out of the ordinary.  If a day goes by and no one is killed, that is not newsworthy – that’s ordinary.  And hence you will not see a thing about that on the news.

When people construct their ideas about the world around them, they do so using two kinds of information – experiential information and symbolic information.  Experiential information is what that person directly experiences in their own life, while symbolic information comes to them through stories and media.

The vast majority of our information about the world comes to us via this second channel – the stories we pick up from other people, from books, from TV, from movies, from magazines, etc. And most of that information that is going to be shared is going to be considered “newsworthy,” which, as I noted earlier, means “out of the ordinary.”

The cumulative result of all of this “newsworthy” information f lowing our way is that we are so inundated with “out of the ordinary” that it becomes “ordinary.”  The world constructed by our minds becomes vastly different from the world that actually exists.  You end up with people who live in very safe neighborhoods wringing their hands and talking about how they refuse to walk outside because they read five stories about drug-related home invasions and shootings over the past two months.   (By the way, researchers have found links between increased fear for personal safety and consumption of news, so it’s not just me dropping made-up media theory.)

This is how it’s possible for someone like me, who lives in a very safe neighborhood and who has never as much as seen a creepy person in my neighborhood, to refuse to run outside.  I have absorbed so many news stories and so many personal accounts of street harassment and watched way more episodes of Law & Order: SVU than is possibly healthy for one person, and it has all collided in my head to create this vision of a world that is waiting to pounce on me every time I go outside alone after nightfall.

Media is powerful.  And it’s because of that power that it is essential that we be critical of all media we absorb.  Think about why you are seeing that particular bit of information, why it might have been selected to be shown to you.  Think about what kind of economic forces are behind it, what kind of political forces are moving it along.   Understand the way media shapes your own thinking, and be vigilant about it.

We have a right to be in the streets, to take up space in public and to not be afraid to do so.  It’s bad enough that we have to face actual danger in our pursuit of what is a very basic human right.  Don’t let your mind help make it worse than it already is.

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