top of page
  • Malak Habbak

The Mean World Syndrome

In recent years, the public is paying close attention to the topic of firearms. During the recent mass shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in December, Americans were constantly fretting about their own security. On CNN, Piers Morgan interviewed Larry Pratt, a gun lobbyist, about gun control and carried on a very heated conversation. “You’re an unbelievingly stupid man aren’t you?” remarked Morgan when the gun lobbyist argued that putting more guns in schools would make the schools safer. The passion and arguments for this topic had risen dramatically in the past few years. After all the media coverage, who wouldn’t think gun violence is an issue? Last year, we learned of the unexpected July 2012 shootings at a Colorado movie theater. There was also news of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December 2012 that killed 20 first graders and six adults. The year before that, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded in shootings in Tucson in January 2011. And this year, we learned of the horrible Navy Yard shooting. After the Jan. 2011 shootings in Tucson, in which former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded, 58 percent of Americans saw the incident as an isolated individual act and 31 percent saw it as a broader societal problem, according to a Pew survey conducted that month. The next year, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown that killed 20 first graders and six adults in December 2012, 47 percent said the gun violence reflected broad societal problems while 44 percent saw them as isolated acts. That was a big change from the July 2012 shootings at a Colorado movie theater after which 67 percent saw the incident as an act of a troubled individual compared to 24 percent who believed it reflected broader problems. The media definitely has a lot to do with how much attention certain issues get. According to a Pew research in April 2013, no story received more public attention from mid-March to early April than the debate over gun control, and crime has moved up as a priority for the public in research polls this year. But the issue that mass shootings are a matter of great public interest and concern is a problem, because reality shows that Americans are greatly misinformed on the topic. Despite the attention to gun violence in recent months, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is significantly lower than it was two decades ago. A new Pew Research Center survey in March found that 56 percent of Americans believe the number of crimes involving a gun is higher than it was 20 years ago; only 12 percent said it is lower, 26 percent said it stayed the same, and 6 percent did not know or did not answer. Statistics show that gun violence is going down: U.S. gun homicides dropped 49 percent in 2010 compared to the rate in 1993. And other cases of violence are also in decline: Other violent crimes, such as assaults, robberies and sex crimes dropped 75 percent in 2011 from the rate in 1993, according to the Pew research. FBI statistics show that the rate of violent crimes, such as rapes, robberies, assaults and murders, peaked in 1974 and has fallen 16% since then. But in a survey published in June, Money magazine revealed that 88% of those surveyed think that crime in America is at an all-time high. (Savage) Since its peak in 1993, the rate of people murdered by a firearm dropped nearly in half, from seven deaths per 100,000 Americans to 3.6 deaths in 2010. In addition, mass shootings amount to a small portion of shootings overall. In fact, homicides that took away at least three lives accounted for less than 1 percent of all homicide deaths from 1980 to 2008, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics review. So although there is this issue that is going on in society, it’s not tantamount to the amount of coverage it is getting in the news media. A Hyper-Reality Society is moving into a new state of mind, projecting the mean-world-syndrome. But what is the mean world syndrome? The “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe the spectacle in which media shows violence-related content that makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous and scary place than it actually is. A similar idea lies in the cultivation theory, which states that the more time people spend “living” in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television. Various studies have shown that opinions and attitudes that viewers make while watching television will have a direct influence on how the viewer perceives the real world. This is because most viewers will reflect and refer to the most common images or recurrent messages they were exposed to on TV to make judgments about its impact on their own lives. This is especially true about topics that viewers have little to no information about. However not all people are affected by media in the same degree and way. But the statistics that revealed a huge disparity between facts and public opinions regarding violence suggest that media has a strong influence on many people. Gerbner says that the spread of the mean world syndrome has become more intense over time. He describes that with newer technologies the cultivation theory grows stronger because it allows more complete access and spread of recurrent messages (Oliver). It was said that the one who tells the stories of a culture really governs the human behavior. “Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell,” Gerbner says. (Oliver) UCLA researchers performed a study that found that television news programs distort their coverage of traumatic deaths and injuries. This coverage, they claimed, emphasizes violence and gives viewers an unrealistic portrayal of the world they face everyday (Ornstein). Some researchers have found that some individuals are unable to constructively process graphic scenes of death and injury, resulting in greater fearfulness, anxiety, and an unhealthy, distorted view of the world. If repeated exposure to graphic scenes of violence or tragedy in television news affects the way people perceive society, then we are confronted with an ethical issue. The goal of broadcast journalists is to “gather and report information of importance and interest to the public accurately, honestly, and impartially” (Wilkinson, Jeffrey S., and James E. Fletcher). Furthermore, journalists are to “evaluate information solely on its merits as news, rejecting sensationalism or misleading emphasis in any form.” But that’s clearly not the world we live in. The world we live in today is a compilation of sensationalism and entertainment, even in news. News as Entertainment But why does television news media cover so much crime in the first place? According to Dr. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, news media will continue to cover crime, especially of the more sensational sort, because they believe that their audiences are interested in it. He also says that crime reporting is an easy source of stories because of its routine nature: the news media can expect a steady supply of stories from the police and from the courts. “In other words,” writes Dr. Boyd-Barrett, “news that is easy to obtain also tends to be cheap to cover”. It has also been noted that this type of sensational news is helping news agencies to sustain sales and ratings. “We call this the ‘political economy of mass communication,’” says Boyd-Barrett. (Habbak) News that is easy and cheap to cover and gains the public’s attention is a common feature of contemporary television news. It is referred to as the “victim story”.  There two main problems with the rampant reporting of these types of stories. The first problem is that these stories are often relatively unimportant to the viewer, and news that is beneficial is being replaced by these victim stories. Another problem is a potential victimization of the audience, because the viewers are now over-exposed and given a false sense of reality. The Center for Media and Pubic Affairs, which scrutinized the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly newscasts from 1990 to 1996, saw that crime stories skyrocketed to 7,448 stories over four years. “We’ve changed, and not for the better, in running stories we know in our journalistic heart of hearts don’t meet the standard to be on the network news. We run it because we’re scared to death our competition is going to run it and beat us. Every network feels it,” said CBS News Anchor Dan Rather. (Kurt) CBS News Executive Van Gordon Sauter explains that the “kind of thing we’re looking for is something that evokes an emotional response. When I go back there to the fishbowl (newsroom), I tell them, goddamn it, we’ve got to touch people. They’ve got to feel a relationship with us. A lot of stories have inherent drama, but others have to be done in a way that will bring out an emotional response.” (Grace Ferrari) Clearly, reality isn’t portrayed justly on television news, as news becomes a new medium meant to trigger emotional responses. Helplessness Helplessness is a key trait and a dominating feature in local television news. The analysis of WABC, WNBC, and WCBS newscasts revealed that a substantial amount of time was devoted to the presentation of human helplessness. Averaging across three stations, 71.4 percent of the time was given to segments where some degree of helplessness. These findings were consistent with the research reported by Levine and Levy and Rickard. (Grace Ferrari) Helplessness leads to various behavioral problems. Martin Seligman, professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, reports several effects: the motivation to respond is exhausted, the ability to perceive success is undermined, and emotionality is heightened. Over the last decade, many studies provided empirical support for the learned helplessness model. (Grace Ferrari) How media portrays victims has been an issue since the beginning of news reporting. Broadcast news organizations are faced with a dilemma: how to balance fair reporting with the need to be economically successful. Using graphic and sensational videos can lead to higher viewership, which isn’t hard to imagine in today’s society that runs on instantaneous gratification. I don’t need to dwell on this statement. We all know that Americans are typically more willing to solve their problems using the quick way out, whether it is by taking a pill or going through weight-loss surgery to lose weight instead of simply exercising and eating healthy; or simply buying new products instead of taking the time to fix what you have. The world is a world of speed and a short attention span. Broadcast television simply needs to be entertaining as ever to maintain a viewership. The ethical drawback is not whether or not television news should report on violence. We all know that the news won’t be real news if we are constantly being told that everything is sweet and wonderful. The problem however is when broadcast news blow events out of proportion and random events reinforce a mean world syndrome. Instead of being a single report, it becomes a marathon of “CSI” or “Law and Order”. In the past, news ethicists have worried about the privacy of the individual being reported about, but they should also worry about the individuals watching the report. Hate Crime Numbers are Another Hyper-Reality? The mean world syndrome initially refers to the belief viewers have of the world being a more dangerous than it actually is. And interestingly, some researchers have investigated the relationship between crime- hate crime in particular- and its media coverage. Levin and McDevitt, researchers in criminology, argue that hate crime numbers are not reliable since they are affected by high-profile events. Levin argues that hate crime numbers rose in New York in 1986 after a group of whites chased a black man to his death into a busy highway. Another report shows that hate crime rose in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted from being accused of beating black motorist Rodney King in 1992. Media obviously plays a huge role by covering these events. When the public becomes informed that hate crimes are taking place, media is essentially fueling public opinion. With the issue at the focus of everyone’s attention, prosecutors may think twice before dropping charges on a hate crime against the defendant if that action is likely to result in adverse publicity. Levin and McDevitt argue another effect may be to push public officials to treat hate offenses more seriously. Now that the matter is more severe, researchers argue that one of two things is likely to happen. First, law enforcement officers may be more thoughtful and accurate in their recording of crimes they feel are hate motivated. And second, the media publicity can get people to think about their own victimizations as they compare the ones they experienced to the hate crimes on the news, and they will be more likely to report on their own victimizations after seeing others. Thereby, number of recorded crimes is likely to increase. (Quisenberry) This sort of cycle described by Levin and McDevitt is one theory that explains how issues become escalated very quickly, and how media plays on media to create more fear and more crime. Victimization There is some evidence that television news victimizes certain groups of people. In fact, several studies show that media messages activate or exacerbate racial stereotypes. (Holt) Blacks have been a major group that has been discriminated against since America’s birth. The media has often been the enemy of the black citizen. One example is in the controversial Rodney King case in 1992. It signified a “cultural other” on the mainstream news- a distant other being- unlike the “typical” Americans. In the broadcast media’s eyes, King was presented as animalistic, all-powerful, dazed by drugs, and numb to pain. A defendant testified that King showed “hulk-like strength”. (Solomon) This portrait drew upon an “the antithesis of civilization” and the “natural home” of “the savage.” (Solomon) Blacks are often over-represented as perpetrators or victims of crime in television news. Although newspapers and magazines have a share in the matter, most criticism was directed at local television because it’s obsession with violence and chaos. The constant coverage of crime stories convinces many viewers that crime is at an all-time high and that whites are likely to become the victims of black criminals. But we all know that crime has actually decreased, so we come to see, once again, how much the public is misinformed. Black journalists at a conference for minority journalists called “Unity ’94,” confront an issue plaguing society: the fact that African Americans are too often portrayed in the media with a “criminal face” is the prevailing belief among Americans but could not be farther from the truth. Blacks, who are more often in news media to be portrayed as the aggressors, have been proven to be three times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than whites. Because people are so heavily influenced by what they see on broadcast news, the image of blacks as criminals creates the assumption that more blacks are involved in crime. The result, said Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., is that most black males, even well-dressed professionals, can expect to be stopped by the police and questioned about crime. In a USA Today-Cable News poll, 53 percent of blacks said that local television coverage of crime treats their race unfairly, while 47 percent were upset by their local paper coverage of crime. The Latino population also feels concerned about crime coverage about their own race. One-third of the Latino population believes that their race is portrayed unjustly in crime stories. Melita Garza, an ethnic affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune, saw a disturbing headline while working for a Milwaukee newspaper that said: “Hispanics Half of All Drug Felons.” “They would never have thought of doing a story that said `99% of white-collar crimes are committed by white males,’ ” she said. (Savage) In addition to crime, Latinos can expect to be given a bad image when it comes to immigration, which has become a huge debate topic in the past decades. Williams says that the media in California contributes to the notion that Latinos are most likely living illegally in the country. “There is clearly race-based reporting,” he said. “When you say `illegal alien,’ they immediately think `Hispanic.’ The second-largest illegal population is Canadians but you can’t pick them out as easily.” (Savage) Profiling of Muslims Going back to the ideas behind the mean world syndrome, we can find that mass media has the power to influence people into having heightened fear of the world. This fear can have dangerous effects, because fear can lead to hatred. The profiling of Arabs is one example where fear is manipulated into hatred. In 2008 at a McCain rally in Minnesota, an oblivious woman told McCain that she does not trust Obama because he is an Arab. Many people all over the world share this woman’s ignorance. The statement she made is a logical fallacy, as Arab and good person are not antithetical. McCain’s denial, “No ma’am, no ma’am.  He’s a decent family man”, permitted her comment to be acknowledged as a legitimate slur. The woman meant to say, “Muslim”, but media has influenced her into thinking Arab and Muslim are the same, and that “Muslims” are “terrorists”. This obviously isn’t true, for not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims. In addition, not all terrorists are Muslims. Media helped place bias ideas into the minds of those who do not know any better. Media has been dehumanizing the Arab for decades. The film, Lawrence of Arabia has given viewers the impression that Arabs need a white man and the message from the movie is clear: Arabs are “greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” (Singh, Jordan, Fisk, McAlister, Ferguson, and Mearsheimer) Media has also shown Arabs as evil when reporting on the Palestine-Israel conflict. You always see Palestinians blowing stuff up; the camera doesn’t show the other side of the story. When the U.S. placed a shah to rule Iran in 1978 and the Muslims had a revolution, they were seen as a disobedient people. The U.S. sees it that they themselves only call the shots. In 1990, a movie called Not Without My Daughter brought up fanaticism in the country and depicted Arabs as an unfeeling and barbaric people. Images of the media of the Iranian hostage crisis were shown more than the Vietnam War, and this obsession continued for more than a year. “America held hostage” was the caption reported in an ABC program. In 1973, images of evil oil sheikhs dominated American media because of OPEC oil situation. There were no debates and no discussions about why the Arabs were mad, and the American media saw Arabs as needing to be silenced. Then Arabs were depicted as being dark, which is surprising given the racial history in the U.S and it’s beliefs about the “white man’s burden” and other superior race theories. In the Disney movie Aladdin in 1992, the original lyrics for the song Arabian Nights depicted Arabs as barbaric peoples. Albert Mokhiber, Attorney in Washington D.C. says that the original lyrics said that Arabia is a place “where they cut off your ear”. (Singh, Jordan, Fisk, McAlister, Ferguson, and Mearsheimer) This propaganda was the same as how Germans depicted Jews, and the same way Americans depicted Germans. In the beginning of the 21st century, stereotyping and demonizing of Arabs continued.  The negative portrayal of Arabs was shown in Iron Eagle, Back To The Future, and Argo. Back in 1990, severe restrictions were put on Iraq- mainly by the U.S.- and a few hundred thousand died of starvation and disease (567,000 were children’s deaths). The U.S. did not show Arab victimization. Even though pain was inflicted on the Arabs, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “we think the price is worth it.” After years and years of dehumanizing, Americans stopped seeing Arabs as people. The tragedy on Sept. 11 reminded the world that the perpetrators were Muslim. They were described as Arab Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East. So the public wondered and questioned the Islamic faith as a whole, which was rarely done with any other religion before. The American government’s response to the attack was a “War on Terror”. The term “War on Terror”, coined by George Bush, is a phrase more harmful than helpful in the face of the world’s present difficulties because it gives a uniform approach towards dealing with groups labeled as terrorists. “It is only the dullness of the eye,” said Walter Pater, “which makes any two things seem alike.” (Grayling) This term brought about tighter immigration, identity and passport control regulations, new domestic laws like the Patriot Act, and U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “War on Terror” has a restricted definition of the world, where on one side stands America and on the other, its enemy- the radical Arab Islamic terrorists. Al Qaeda became the number one threat to the U.S., and overnight, Islam became associated with terrorism and anti-Americanism. Furthermore, Islam was defined by a specific category of Muslims- those profiled as terrorists. Arabic words like “jihadists” and “jihad” became widely used in the media to describe terrorists and the motivations behind their actions – describing their actions as an Islamic duty to defend Islam. These biased slants on a worldwide religion caused Americans to think, “Does Islam promote violence?” A study by the Guardian of its own coverage of Islam in 1999 found that the word “Islamic” was linked with “militants” 16 times, “extremists” 15 times, “fundamentalism” eight times, and “terrorism” six times. At the same time, “Christian” was joined with positive words or neutral words like “tradition” or “belief” (Griffin). In a Washington Post-ABC News poll in 2009, 48 percent of Americans said they had negative views on Islam, the highest since 2001. (Cohen, and Jennifer Agiesta) In 2010, a Pew Research Center survey stated that 35 percent of Americans felt that Islam encouraged more violence than any other religion. (“Public Remains Conflicted Over Islam”) These statistics reflect what is being presented in the media. When Fox News host Glenn Beck said that 10 percent  (about 157 million) of Muslims are terrorists- more than the population of people in Russia- misinformation was given to the public. (Mirkinson) The numbers are so impractical, yet many Americans believe that whatever is said on TV must be true. Profiling caused all Muslims to be judged and discriminated against for the acts of a group of individuals within it. Classifying Muslims as terrorists has made the world afraid of them. This fear gave birth to hatred, and this hatred is mostly due to ignorance. In May 2010, a bomb exploded at an Islamic center in Jacksonville, Florida. In August, a man wounded a New York taxi driver in the neck and face because he was a Muslim.  In the next four days, someone set fire to equipment at the construction site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. One attorney fighting the construction of the Islamic Center asked if Islam was even a religion, and tried remove it from the protection of the First Amendment. (Loller) The media gave a lot of coverage to the “Ground Zero Mosque”, and politicians spoke on various media outlets about this pressing issue. Pastor Terry Jones, who wanted to burn the Quran, was famous on the media for plotting to burn the Quran. The media did also recognize many other like-minded Americans who stood by the pastor but did not go far as to the burning of the Quran. The Portland Press Herald in Maine printed a front-page article with a photo of 3,000 local Muslims praying together, but later apologized to the readers in a front-page apology for being too respectful of Muslims. James Poniewozik of Time summarized it in a blog, which reads, “Sorry for portraying Muslims as humans.” Struggles with Muslims and Islam continued as Americans resisted construction of another mosque to be built in southern California. If Osama Bin Laden is presumed to represent Muslims around the world, should it be presumed that Pastor Terry Jones represents Christians? Believing all the Muslims are the same is the same as believing all whites are the same and all blacks are the same. Several events have repeated this stereotypical notion. The Associated Press revealed the NYPD operated secretly in neighborhoods where Muslims lived and worked, spying on Muslim organizations and mosques and infiltrating student groups. (“the Guardian”) In 2011, the Stop and Frisk was targeted at Muslims in New York. Why else would the government enact this law if not for the stereotypical thinking that Muslims were bad and violent citizens? Somehow, the terrorists involved in attack on the Twin Towers have been indissolubly linked with the Muslim community not only in the Middle East and America, but around the whole world, as has been reflected through racial profiling at the US entry points. The Medium is the Message There is an interesting point to be made specific to the coverage of violence. As mentioned earlier, since broadcast media (especially traditional network newscasts) specialize as a type of “reality theatre” by telling stories with good and evil characters, setting, suspense, and buildup to climatic conclusions, it’s easier for the depiction of violence to be heightened. Since broadcast news needs to be emotional and entertaining, it becomes easy to make fear a tool for winning over the public’s attention. By comparison, print media has the ability to depict violence more analytical and logical than broadcast media. Marshal McLuhan’s famous clipping therefore goes to say that indeed, “the medium is the message” (Griffin).

Journalist & Photographer

bottom of page