Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room

Tragicide! How the Media Spread Fear and Violence by Overhyping Stories

From global warming to global terror, from school shootings to racial divides, the media are screaming fire, setting the American psyche ablaze with fear and intimidation.

Obsessive media coverage of killings and disasters is damaging the soul and psyche of the American people, and racking up real victims by inciting copy-cat crimes and leading people–young and old–to drugs and suicide. It’s irresponsible at best and malicious at worst. Isn’t it time Americans said “Enough!”?

TRAGICIDE IS REAL!

It was 1999, and the now iconic Columbine shooting had just happened. I was a reporter for the tabloid the National Examiner at the time. My job was first to prick and prod the victims’ parents and families on who they thought was to blame for this horrible tragedy and then incredibly to ask them if they felt partially responsible. Then I was to convince the rest of America this could happen in their schools and communities.

It didn’t matter that violence in schools and in fact gun violence overall had been steadily decreasing at the time. All that mattered was that we keep people reading and coming back for their fix of fear!

I had spent a decade as a reporter bouncing back and forth between the tabloids and People magazine. And I had covered my share of celebrity stories with sensational and hyperbolic zeal. But now I was charged with pumping up a REAL story with REAL victims where REAL people were hurting, trying to deal with a horrific situation as best as they could.

As one of the victims’ parents broke down crying over the phone, my Catholic conscience got the better of me. I told her to hang up the phone and unplug it from the wall. Within a month I quit my job, hoping to work where that kind of fear based reporting wasn’t the standard. But when I looked around at the rest of the media, they were all guilty of sensationalizing the truth to scare the crap out of people, or more accurately to scare the sponsorship dollars out of them by getting them to read and watch.

The daily coverage of Columbine lasted for days, then weeks, even though there was no new information. And the world of journalism descended to an all time low, consumed by what I call TRAGICIDE — the willful and malicious promotion of tragedy by the spreading of fear instead of information. And it wasn’t going away anytime soon.

In fact, it was about to claim real victims. Just under a month later a copycat opened fire at Heritage High School just outside of Atlanta, GA.  According to Sherry Towers, an Arizona State University research professor who reviewed the effects of media coverage of shootings for several decades, that shooting was directly tied to the media coverage of Columbine.

Her study published last year suggested mass shootings can actually be “contagious” if given major national news coverage and lead to copycats and more violence within an average of 13 days.

“What we found was, in ones that didn’t get a lot of media attention there was no contagion,” said Towers. “And in the ones where we did see a lot of media attention, that’s where we saw the contagion.”

And even the FBI agreed.

“The copycat phenomenon is real,” said Andre Simons of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. “As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks.”

I didn’t need to read Towers’ study or Simons’ comments to know that was true. I heard it straight from Rachel Jupin when I interviewed her over a decade ago. Rachel was the teacher who prevented the massacre that didn’t happen, along with the student who blew the whistle on it before it happened. It was just a couple of weeks after the horrible attacks on 9-11 left this country reeling, when a band of deranged high school students in New Bedford, Mass., were planning an attack on their school – one that would have arguably paralyzed the nation if it occurred at such a perilous time.

“It was going to be just like Columbine,” recalled Rachel. “But only ‘bigger and better,’ as they put it. Somehow they convinced themselves that they could earn the love and respect of the world this way. “

Why wouldn’t a bunch of teen malcontents yearning for attention think that after watching the incessant coverage of Columbine with Jesse James like portrayals of the teen killers? It’s almost begging them to act.

THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR – BUT THE MEDIA!

Wolf Blitzer is in the Situation Room reporting on the latest breaking news items that you need to be concerned with, right?

No, he’s not! He’s not in the Situation Room! That’s in the White House. Wolf is not there. He is in a television studio. Most often, he is not reporting on anything that has been determined by our government to be a “situation.”

What he is doing is exaggerating the truth hyperbolically by saying that he’s in the Situation Room, and that you need therefore to listen to his inflated representation of the news and be afraid – be very afraid!

It’s quite purposeful and irresponsible. What most everyday civilians don’t know is the media has three phases to its attack plan when covering the news. The first is the actual reporting of the story. But in today’s saturated news world with thousands of reporters descending on a story, the information is fished out within minutes or at most a few hours of the news cycle.

In order to keep the story going, reporters depend on the second phase – the blame game – finding a scapegoat and pinning them to the wall, right or wrong, justified or not.

But the third and most insidious phase – and the one they milk the most because they can so easily – is the fear and intimidation phase.

“This,” whatever this is, “could happen to you, to your family, in your town, in your country in our world!”

And then we will all die, or starve, or go broke, hungry, homeless, we will lose our house, our health, the list goes on.  And there is no real way to dispute such non-fact based reporting, right? Wrong! Let’s look at some of the media’s most popular misinformation based Tragicide.

Consider global warming? Ok, so you are a reporter that wants to report that temperatures are projected to rise a little over two degrees by 2100 and sea levels might rise a foot or two. That’s fine. Those are the projections from the Environmental Protection Agency of the Obama administration. But they are simply projections, not facts, and telling me that we are all going to be incinerated or be swept away by massive hurricanes is not a fact. That’s Tragicide. I would much rather hear about ways we can clean up our act, clean up our environment, and ways we are already working to do so with technology and human efforts so we can enjoy our world. That’s reporting.

What about terrorism? Well you want to tell me our nation needs to have sound and real everlasting policies to protect ourselves globally and domestically? Then I am all ears. But when you start telling me that our nation is in danger of being overrun by terrorists when the facts are we have had a fraction of the fatalities and events related to terror than in other nations around the world, then that’s Tragicide. I would much rather hear about reasonable strategies to protect our nation and our border that our being devised. And they are out there – I know because I have written about them! That’s reporting of information.

Here’s a big one – the economy. It’s improving hands down. Look at the numbers. Our nation is leading the world right now in its economic recovery. Our stock market is up in the stratosphere because of the boom of new public companies and low interest rates. And that has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat or whether you approve of or think President Obama’s leadership stinks. It’s because hard-working devoted Americans have worked their butts off to get back on their feet against a whole lot of odds and pressures of government and crony capitalists working against them. They are still doing so all over this great nation. That’s the real story that needs telling. Tell me those stories, because there are a lot of them. And most importantly let me know how we can get the people who aren’t working and part of that success included in the prosperity. That’s meaningful and real reporting.

On immigration — you want to report on the opinions of people who want to build a wall or tear down the border and let everyone in, that’s fine, but don’t sell your story by telling me that immigrants are terrorizing the nation because the facts don’t bear it out.

Similarly don’t fill my head with the notion that our nation is filled with immigrant hating, racist xenophobes, and that everyone who wants stricter immigration laws is plotting the violent overthrow of our government. That’s Tragicide. Instead tell me about the plans to fix the situation. They are out there, and I know because I have reported on them and written about them as well.

We come back to gun violence and those horrible school shootings. Even with the increase in mass shootings that we have purportedly had in the last few years, real reporting, as opposed to Tragicide, reveals those are rare events. And with great deference and respect for the victims, they don’t point to an uptick in gun related homicides. In fact the homicide rate has dropped dramatically since the nineties, down almost 50 percent in total deaths and down about 80 percent according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to non-fatal gun related crimes.

Finally, after a hard fought, and mean spirited campaign in which both sides were doing their best to scare the hell out of us into the voting booth, protests erupted in several cities across the nation. OK, so you want to cover these mostly non-violent democratically inspired and protected demonstrations by reporting on what the people are saying and doing? Great. But when you start trying to represent it as more than a relative handful of people, and you cast it as some kind of substantive revolt that is about to blow up the country – that is TRAGICIDE.

The current protest coverage is the perfect exclamatory example of Tragicide. Because it’s that kind of illegitimate and fraudulent reporting that could incite an actual explosion or two. Tell me the real story, which is that this nation has come back from this incredibly divisive election to come together in peaceful presidential transition with the majority of Americans pledging to give the new president a chance whether we voted for him or not. And that is the miracle of America!

THE RIPPLE OF FEAR

Now this type of, “If it bleeds, it leads” reporting is not a brand new thing. It has been happening for decades as former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather admitted to the Washington Post back in 1997.

“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,” admitted Rather. “We run it because we’re scared to death our competition is going to run it and beat us. Every network feels it.”

That fraudulent misrepresentation in reporting isn’t just unprofessional and illegitimate; it is hurting people.  And real victims caused by copycat shootings are just the tip of the iceberg.

The growing and cumulative effect of such reporting eventually takes a tremendous toll on the spirit and morale of society. Even way back in 1976 researcher George Gerber discovered the statistical evidence of what he called Mean world syndrome that occurs when readers or viewers believe that the world is a whole lot more dangerous than it actually is.

This victimization of society by illegitimate, fear-based reporting is causing severe society wide problems ranging from social chaos to mild anxiety to even suicide. Yes, that’s right suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years rising by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. It’s actually become a top ten leading cause of death.

And a recent American Journal of Public Health study found that anti-anxiety medication use rose 37 percent in America over the last several decades, and that over 7000 people each year die from overdosing on them. Meanwhile antidepressant use increased by almost 400% between 1988 and 2008. About one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant.

Now that is real – and something really to  be concerned about.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Now if the media is doing this purposely, and we know it is harming society, then shouldn’t we be able to hold them accountable? I mean, think about it. If we found out that a company was producing and selling a product that caused all these types of physical, mental and social disorders, there would probably be a lawyer waging a class action suit against them. If we discovered that someone was inciting someone to kill with their speech, they would be arrested or at least required to stop.

And yet the media goes on protected by what they call absence of malice, or freedom of speech, selling fear and death and laughing sardonically all the way to the bank. But it is pushing us and the rest of society to the brink of desolation.

So if we can’t arrest them and we can’t sue them, what can we do?

We can’t completely turn off the news and stop reading the papers. But we can watch it and read it less or with less blind allegiance and more skepticism, looking for the facts in as many places as possible.  I have traveled all over this nation and heard from so many people how they have turned off the news and stopped reading the paper as often. And you know what? Nothing bad happens when people do it. In fact, a whole lot of good things happen because they aren’t paralyzed by fear. They are working to solve problems in their day to day lives, they are starting and running companies, they are helping their neighbors and their communities.

That’s one way we can fight this. Live our lives happily and successfully. That’s the number one way you fight the Tragicide. Stop feeding into the fear.

But there are a couple of other things you can do. If you really want to make a difference call your local and national media and tell them you are tired of this type of coverage. After the sensational coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 viewers flooded the switchboards of the networks. And the sensational coverage stopped. Maybe it even convinced a few media people that what they were doing was wrong. We can always hope.

You can also call, write or email the sponsors for those networks, and tell them you will not buy their products if they support such coverage. And then stick to your guns on that threat. Because at the end of the day money talks.

Ultimately at the end of the day, knowledge is power. And now you have it. I will leave you with one other last bit of know how from the Good Book that I hope you will appreciate regardless of your faith or secularity.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:18

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Written By
Chris Benguhe is a columnist and author of numerous non-fiction titles including "Beyond Courage: The 9 Principles of Heroism."
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3 Comments

  • Amen!! Very good article…I have just been avoiding most news and watching Hallmark movies on tv lately. I’m not really scared because I am a Christian and I know God is in total control and because we live in a small town and thankfully we haven’t had to deal with anything like the bigger cities have.

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