Sunday, June 8, 2014

Avoiding the Mean World Syndrome

It was all Moncton shootings all the time on the Canadian media last week. Before that, it was the tragic shootings of college students in California and Seattle. The world sure seems like a terrible place. But is it? Or does access to 24-7 media from around the world just make it seem that way?

"Mean world syndrome.” 

That’s a phrase coined by George Gerbner, for many years a professor of communications at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia. 

Through his research, Gerbner found that people who watch large amounts of television are more likely to believe that the world is an unforgiving and frightening place.

“Violence on television is just one of the areas that causes a distorted concept of reality,” he said of his research, which focused on TV shows and movies.

Gerbner’s studies showed that children who grow up with this unprecedented diet of violence feel that they live in a meaner world, and act accordingly.

“The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people,” he said.

“Our surveys tell us that the more television people watch, the more they are likely to be afraid to go out on the street in their own community, especially at night. They are afraid of strangers and meeting other people. A hallmark of civilization, which is kindness to strangers, has been lost.”

The result is the “mean world syndrome,” where people think the world is more terrible than it really is.

Many politicians take advantage of this fear, never running for office without “advocating more jails, harsher punishment, more executions, all the things that have never worked to reduce crime but have always worked to get votes. 

"It's driven largely, although not exclusively, by television-cultivated insecurity.”

Of course, there is a lot of real-life horror in the world. It needs to be reported. But does it need to dominate the news?

British author Alain de Botton doesn’t think so. In his new book The News: A User’s Manual, he notes that countries and communities are more than what we see in the media.

The British nation, he writes, "isn't just a severed head, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, trillions of debt, a double suicide at the railway station and a fatal five-car crash by the coast.”

It is also "the cloud floating right now over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor's mind, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hard boiled egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage.”

A main task of the media, he writes, should be to show another side of community, one that “seems sufficiently good, forgiving and sane that one might want to contribute to it."

A few newspapers have tried to focus on only good news for a day. In 2007 the
Scotland Evening News held a Good News Day. On that day, every story in the paper had a positive angle.

"There is no shortage of bad news," said editor John McLellan about the novel edition. "While no one wants to put their head in the sand, I do think we need to rediscover some sense of optimism."

Closer to home, the Edmonton Sun did the same thing in 2009.

"It's a bit of a perspective-check to remind us—no matter what our RRSP statements say—life really isn't all that bad," Rodriquez added.

(Unfortunately, research by Pew in 2007 found that the most highly read news categories in the U.S. are war and terrorism, bad weather, disasters, money and crime and violence. If that's the case, maybe we get the kind of media we deserve.)

Is there a religious antidote to all the bad news in the world today? Maybe the Apostle Paul had good advice: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)

That, plus maybe stop watching the news.

For a musical perspective, listen to Anne Murray's 1983 song A Little Good News.

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