By: Eric Singleton
We live in world of unprecedented connectivity. Digital news networks are practically endless—online newspapers, television stations, podcasts and other media outlets—and they seem to provide diverse information for our daily consumption.
This is merely an illusion. Corporate media consolidation is quickly becoming a worldwide norm. Many Americans do not realize that 90% of their information diet comes just from six gargantuan corporations, including Time Warner, Viacom, and Disney. Not only these corporations have immense influence in the United States, but they also own the top-selling newspapers in Europe and Australia.
Relaying global news is an immense responsibility, but as with any for-profit corporation, making money is always the top priority. For this specific purpose, these conglomerates capitalize on covering stories that 1) are cheap and safe to run (i.e. semi-controversial at most) and 2) tap into our intrinsic negativity bias, or our natural proclivity to lend more psychological weight to bad experiences than good ones.
When it comes to actions against humanity, particularly those of terrorist groups, violent crimes take precedence over nonviolent ones. In fact, 87 percent of crimes portrayed in mainstream media sources are violent, whereas in reality, 87 percent of crimes are nonviolent and petty.
This has an effect on the audience. This misrepresentation has serious implications—studies show that watching violent media results in increased aggression and fear of being harmed. Why? Violent media facilitates the following:
- Disinhibition. This is defined as the development of behaviors characterized by impulsivity and with a complete disregard for social norms and risk assessment.
- Desensitization. This one is pretty self-explanatory—the more violent media an individual consumes, the less distressed they feel in response to horrific events.
- Priming. Talking about guns increases aggression-related thoughts. Thus, it’s unfortunate that America is obsessed with guns—the search volume index for “gun rights” on Google is seven times higher in the United States than the country with the next highest search index, concerned younger sibling Canada (who, by the way, is arguably now the most mature member of the family).
- Imitation. Overemphatic coverage of a violent event has the potential to set off copycat killers. Take the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, for instance. Abundant coverage of this horrific tragedy could have inspired similar crimes, such as this one, to occur.
In an effort to make a profit, media conglomerates are capitalizing on the human psyche without realizing the potential rippling effects of extensive violent media coverage. The contagion effect of mass shootings, for instance, is real and subconscious ideation can remain for up to six weeks after a violent event occurs. The evidence is clear—the United States ended 2015 with over 350 shootings.
It is time for media conglomerates to realize their imprudent profit-making practices, and reframe tragic world events in an informative, yet careful, manner. Here are some ideas:
- Do not turn a mass murderer into some sort of deranged celebrity. Omar Mateen is now a household name. Does a man who relentlessly took the lives of 49 deserve this status? This is exactly what inspires copycat crimes—professors of psychiatry assert that naming names and showing bloody scenes only perpetuates shooter infamy.
- Report homicide as you would suicide. Death in any form or fashion is traumatic, period. Therefore, news networks should follow these guidelines (developed in collaboration by over 20 credible institutions) that are traditionally used for reporting suicide deaths, but can translate to homicides and mass killings—better to be safe (and sensitive) than sorry. I find this point particularly important. Two weeks ago I listened to an appalling, debatably unethical episode of the BBC World Service in which reporters exploited grieving families that were trying to find their children during the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. This is not only disrespectful to the dead (and living), but reveals the consequences of a mass shooter’s actions, which has the potentiality to disinhibit, desensitize and prime the mind of a potential imitator.
While the aforementioned ideas are simple to implement, real change cannot happen until media executives expunge themselves of corporate greed. But this is easier said than done. AOL bought Time Warner in 2001 for a healthy 124 billion. That’s approximately six times what Congress funded to rebuild Iraq. Practicing big business at the expense of humanity is counterintuitive and sustainable only for the rich.
There are many psychological and environmental factors that go into mass shootings and suicide bombings. It is impractical to blame a wave of horrific events solely on the media.
Nevertheless, media conglomerates must open their eyes and fully understand the prodigious responsibility they carry in relaying world events, particularly ones involving death and violence. To reshape the framing and portrayal of violent crimes is to decrease viewer aggression, and potentially reduce the number of lives callously taken from our world.
Eric Singleton is a development intern at EastWest Institute. He is an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston Honors, pursuing degrees in international studies and psychology with a minor in Spanish.