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Altheide says media driving “discourse of fear”


David Altheide

Our society, in many respects, is built on fear. News reports seem to be constantly announcing a crime alert, terror watch or consumer warning, and a new danger – such as West Nile virus, a really bad flu season or a shark attack – is right around the corner.

Meanwhile, the federal government is continually waging war, be it on crime, drugs – or, most recently, terror.

While reasonable concern is healthy, ASU Regents Professor David Altheide says much of the fear around us is unwarranted. It boils down to overuse of the language of fear, and an overeager media and entertainment industry attempting to strike an emotional chord.

“There’s now a discourse of fear that pervades society," says the ASU School of Justice and Social Inquiry professor. "The discourse relates to the sense that danger, dread and fear are pervasive and just around the corner.”

Last fall, Altheide, earned the Charles Horton Cooley Book Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction for his book, "Creating Fear, News and the Construction of a Crisis." He is the first person to ever win that prestigious national honor twice, with the first coming in 1986 for his book “Media Power.”

His newest book, Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, due out this fall, looks at the use of fear in politics and its relation to the war on terror. The work documents how decision makers promote and use fear to push their own political agendas – and exact more social control over citizens.

Altheide, an expert in the use of content analysis of the media, says the language of fear has slowly built up in everyday use for a more than a decade. He says the use of language began to change with the government’s “war on crime,” as military terminology was integrated into common use. Eventually, he says, fear became built into every news story.

Art imitates life

ASU Professor David Altheide has built his career on analyzing the language used by the news media. One of his signature methods has been the use of “ethnographic content analysis” – an integrated approach that studies documents for relevance, significance and meaning.

A character in the latest Michael Crichton thriller, State of Fear, employs the same method. In the book, “Professor Hoffman” is an intense proponent of ethnographic content analysis who has used it to identify the use of fear in the media.

Crichton cites Altheide’s book Creating Fear, along with several other scholarly works, in the bibliography for State of Fear.

Read an excerpt of the novel


Entertainment has also taken on a decidedly more fearful tone, with storylines playing off of society’s fear.

"The metaphors from the arena of war slip into other areas of life," he says. "The fear became cumulative. One fear builds on another. This created a mood, an almost default assumption you weren’t going to make it home at night."

In many ways, Altheide says former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was correct when he uttered the famous line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." If society becomes based on fear, the professor says, the biggest consequence is that people will change their lives to deal with it.

"Social life starts to change because of it, and we start altering our lives," he says. "We don’t go out as much. Architecturally, we protect ourselves with gated communities, high walls and no windows. Public space begins to decline."

Altheide says the answer is to take a realistic look at life and the risks around us. While there is such a fear of crime, rates are going down. In 2001, the national news media was bombarding people with frightening images of shark attacks along the nation’s coast, building almost to the point of hysteria. In reality, while some of the attacks were sensational in nature, the overall number had dropped.

An even more recent example is the flu shot shortage in 2004. Because of several shortages, the national supply of shots was down. With an expected severe flu season, long lines and rationing started as the national frenzy grew. Now, just a few months later, stories are slowly coming out about large surpluses of the shots remaining.

"Relative risk is much different from fear," he says. "Some fear is good to have, but not if it is everywhere. People need to think in terms of actual risk."

He maintains hope that the news media – which he says bears a great responsibility in all of this – will start to reverse the trend.

"Journalists can’t keep touting fear," he says. "I think we have to find ways to talk about issues and make it interesting with out scaring people. We need to find ways to say it without fear."

Altheide says he will do his part and continue to get the word out about the use of fear in media. In the fall, he will apply some of these ideas in a special course on terrorism.

By Gary Campbell. Campbell, with Marketing & Strategic Communications, can be reached at (480) 965-7209 or (


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