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Barry Glassner Narrative Techniques of Fear Mongering AMERICANS LIVE IN PERHAPS THE SAFEST TIME IN HU M A N HISTORY, SO how has it come about that there are so many fears and scares in the air, and so many of them are unfounded? Why, as crime rates plunged over the past decade, did substantial numbers ofAmericans say in surveys that they believe the crime rate is rising or remaining steady? Why, despite numerous studies showing that the number of drug users declined substantially during past two decades, did large numbers of Americans rank drug use as the greatest danger to America’s youth? Why, at a time when most Americans are living longer and healthier, do many people feel they are at great risk of early death from obscure disorders? I suggest that the answer to these and related questions lies, in large measure, in the immense power and money that await individu­ als and organizations who can tap into Americans’ moral insecurities for their own benefit. By fear mongering, politicians sell themselves to voters, TV and print newsmagazines sell themselves to viewers and readers, advocacy groups sell memberships, quacks sell treatments, lawyers sell class-action lawsuits, and corporations sell consumer prod­ ucts. A particularly illustrative current example of the last of these is the highly successful marketing of antibacterial soaps, which tend to be more expensive than conventional soaps, confer no greater protec­ tion in normal household settings, and may well contribute to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Much of the answer to why there are so many misbegotten fears in the air resides in how fear mongers sell their scares. In no small social research Voi 71 : No 4 : W inter 200 4 819 measure they do it the same way discount stores make their profits: they do it on volume. The point is illustrated by a pair of statistics about crime. Between 1990 and 1998, the murder rate in the United States decreased by 20 percent. During that same period, the number of stories about murder on network newscasts increased by 600 percent. Frequent viewers of evening newscasts were unlikely to have the impression that the crime rate was dropping. More than volume is involved, however, in successful fear monger­ ing. Fear mongers deploy narrative techniques to normalize what are actually errors in reasoning. Perhaps the most common of these consists in the christening of isolated incidents as trends. Commonly used in fear mongering about groups of people, this stratagem was used in scares about youth violence from the mid-1990s through mid-2001, a period in which, in actuality, the United States experienced a steep downward trend in youth crime. Faced year after year with comforting statistics during this period, fear mongers recast those statistics as “the lull before the storm,” as a Newsweek headline in 1995 put it. “We know we’ve got about 6 years to turn this juvenile crime thing around, or our countiy is going to be living in chaos,” President Bill Clinton asserted in his 1997 State of the Union address, even though the youth violent crime rate had fallen 9.2 percent the previous year. Six years later the nation was not living with chaos, at least as a result of youth violence, but the bipartisan fear mongering that went on about juvenile crime had demonstrable effects on public percep­ tions. In surveys conducted during the second half of the 1990s, adult Americans estimated that people under 18 committed about half of all violent crimes, although the actual number is 13 percent. One important source for such misperceptions was the public discourse regarding school shootings. The buildup began in the academic year 1996-1997, a year in which violence-related deaths in the nation’s schools actually hit a record low: 19 deaths out of 54 million children. Only one in ten public schools reported any serious crime that year, but that was not the impression conveyed in the news media and by fear-mongering politicians. Time and US News and World Report both 820 social research ran headlines that year referring to “teenage time bombs,” and William Bennett, the former secretary of education, proclaimed in a book...


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