Mass Media and Ontological Security Despite the Essay

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Mass Media and Ontological Security

"Despite the fact that crime rates in most U.S. cities have been in steady decline for a decade, local newscasts still operate under the mantra, 'If it bleeds, it leads'." Gross, et al., 2003, p. 411.

Does the mass media threaten society's sense of ontological security more than it contributes to society's ontological security? This paper delves into and analyzes this question from the perspective of peer-reviewed, scholarly articles. From the literature available it is clear to an objective observer that indeed today's mass media presents constant and disturbing images, beyond what the community's actual social dynamics present as far as danger to individuals. And hence, the ontological security of millions of citizens is both threatened and disturbed.


Ontological security: a stable, steady, consistent personal emotional state that results from a sense of comfort and continuity regarding the events on one's daily life. When people have confidence and trust in the world around them -- and generally enjoy life without fear or emotional conflict -- they are said to have ontological security.

Besides the need and strong desire for physical security, individuals have been seeking ontological security for generations. However, in the 21st Century ontological security is harder to achieve than ever before because of the constant bombardment of bad -- even frightening -- news delivered by television, newspapers, radio, the Internet and magazines, in particular television cable news. How does one find ontological security when the drumbeat of negative, scary news is constant?

According to professor Jennifer Mitzen at Ohio State University, ontological security is achieved by "routinizing relationships" with family, friends, associates and significant others (Mitzen, 2005, p. 1). But it goes much deeper and farther than just getting into a comfortable routine around one's community of friends. Ontological security in fact is a very difficult task for any person who observes televised news programs on a frequent basis, hoping to stay abreast of the world's shifting, surprising and dangerous events.

Risk of Terrorism

Of course governments and news media professionals are obliged to keep citizens informed of potential danger vis-a-vis terrorism, war, and other potential hazards. This is true even though some media present information in a way that creates fear and disrupts daily life -- and, unfortunately, disallows ontological security in the process. As to the possibility of new terrorist threats in the United Kingdom following the terrorists attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid and London, a peer-reviewed research paper in the journal Crime Media Culture points out that keeping the public informed is tricky.

Not only is it tricky to approach new terrorism in a calm, professional way, in the UK "…communication of the terrorist threat has been ambiguous, patchy, and ill conceived" (Mythen, et al., 2006, p. 124). The author explains that the "risk theory" -- a theme that has come into play subsequent to terrorism's increasingly significant role -- emphasizes both the "destructive impacts of risk on the lived environment" as well as the "transformatory potential of risk within the public sphere," Mythen explains (p. 124). What that basically means is that the UK society is leaning away from "positive problems" (like acquiring goods, earning a good paycheck, keeping health and education at the top of the agenda) and focusing more and more on "negative issues of avoiding 'bads'" (terrorism, AIDS, environmental destruction and crime in general) (Mythen, 2006, p. 1214).

This dynamic of abandoning the examination of "positive problems" and zeroing in more often on "negative issues" is the product of "the intensification of media interest in risk conflicts," Mythen goes on. In fact the language of today's politics (generated by the media) "increasingly taps into individualized insecurities and fears," the author continues, and it is the thesis of this paper that those insecurities and fears combine to prevent ontological security in the hearts and homes in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and certainly in the United States as well.

Mythen (p. 127) writes that the UK government has tried to win the trust of the public back through "effective communications" regarding the threats of terrorism. However, that attempt to build public trust has backfired for the UK government since a number of national security issues (involving the public safety and trust) have been "leaked" by the government. Those leaks are unconscionable, Mythen implies, given the serious nature of the leaks. For example, how can citizens in England be expected to feel safe when the following alleged potential terrorist plots have been allowed to leak out through government sources?

Due to leaks from the UK government the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists have been linked to: a) the crashing of a commercial jetliner into Canary Wharf Tower; b) the launching of surface-to-air missiles at Heathrow Airport; c) "explosive strikes on the Houses of Parliament"; and d) setting of a bomb at the Old Trafford football stadium (Mythen, 2006, p. 128).

Leaks like those mentioned above "…contradict the espoused policy of reassuring the public" as to real terrorist threats, Mythen explains (p. 128). Moreover, the very fact that the UK government allowed leaks to get out -- given that the government can stop those leaks by using D-notes -- makes it seem "…probable that…inaction in countering erroneous information…has served to amplify rather than attenuate public anxiety" (Mythen, 2006, p. 128). And amplifying the anxiety of the public is in fact the wrong way to promote ontological security.

Davie L. Altheide writes that the mass media became fond of presenting propaganda regarding the fear of terrorism since the U.S. "discovered' international terrorism on 11 September, 2001" (Altheide, 2007, p. 287). Certainly any responsible news organization is going to cover terrorism more thoroughly following a devastating attack on its important financial and military facilities. But according to Altheide, the media -- along with politicians and other high visibility leaders -- jumped on the bandwagon against the Muslim faith and against "a vast number of non-western nations to strategically promote fear," Altheide writes (p. 287). Beside feat the media and politicians used common beliefs "and assumptions about danger, risk, and fear in order to achieve certain goals"; those goals, Altheide believes, included "expanding domestic social control" (p. 287).

Altheide takes no prisoners when he recounts the media's behavior following the September 11 attacks. The "war on terror" was "grounded in a discourse of fear," he writes (p. 288); the idea was to present the theme that danger and risk "are a central feature of everyday life" and after all, the media and the Bush Administration proclaimed "…the moral and social superiority of the United States." The world had changed, Bush and the media put forward to the citizens after 9/11, and as a result survival of the society in the future would be dependant on "giving up many basic civil liberties, particularly 'privacy,'" Altheide explains, somewhat cryptically on page 288).

What was also interesting, Altheide continues, is that the news media defined the 9/11 attacks as an assault on "American culture, if not civilization itself" which was a way of using a broad context and "…a preexisting discourse of fear" (p. 288). His bottom line (p. 292) is that after 9/11 the mass media "promoted the war on terrorism" by stressing "fear and an uncertain future"; and moreover, the media helped create stereotypes and "extreme ethnocentrism that is very close to the images many westerners had of Vietnamese adversaries" in the Vietnam War. Bringing those bitter images into homes on TV reduces the possibility of ontological security.

Promotion of Fear by TV Media

Do television news department seek to increase their viewer ship by using stories that cause viewers to be fearful? Jason R. Young writes in the journal American Behavioral Scientist that research shows TV news directors use "fearful news" to attract a wider audience; this is not a great revelation because any lay person who objectively observes the TV news programs night after night can see the heavy coverage of crime and violence; one can only assume that ratings are more important to most TV news outlets (Young, 2003, p. 1675). However, empirical research conducted by communications specialists and presented by Young, a social psychologist, shows that while vivid images on TV are "intensely negative" (prompting the view to be fearful) "viewers continue to be captivated by these images" (p. 1675). And if viewers are truly captivated, and the TV programmers know this, the policy logically will be to give the viewers what they want and need to keep them "captivated."

The perceptions that people have of how much crime there really is in any given community are "distorted," Young writes (p. 1675). The viewers' perception is distorted because of "…the high percentage of media coverage dedicated to crime, especially violent crime" juxtaposed with the actual "per capita rates of criminal activity" which is far lower than most TV viewers would believe, Young continues (p. 1675). To verify his assumptions Young launched a research project using thirty-six undergraduates from Hunter College in New York; it was thoughtfully created in the…[continue]

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