My family had no time for news that morning. When my mom dropped me off at school, we were perfectly unaware of the largest news story to break in years. I noticed more noise than usual in the empty school hallways. The muffled TV sets, hushed voices, and lack of children or laughter unnerved me enough to show up at my classroom a full ten minutes early. Immediately, I noticed that the TV was on, which confused me because we had no movie planned. My teacher was watching the same show as another teacher, featuring repeated footage of a plane tearing into a building. She was on the phone, and come to think of it, several other teachers I’d passed were making phone calls too. Everyone must be so excited about this show, I thought.
“Oh my god, this can’t be real.” As my teacher spoke those words, I noticed for the first time this was a news show. My teacher explained what was going on, and questioned whether my parents would even want me in school right now. As more students showed up, she lowered the TV’s volume, but she didn’t turn it off; she didn’t even mute it. That TV stayed on all day, still showing the plane tearing into the building.
Two things intrigue me about this memory. I felt unsafe. I felt unsafe in a vague and terrifying way. I didn’t expect an airplane to fly into my school, but I was scared because the people in charge of me were scared. Meanwhile, the people in charge of me were scared because the people in charge of them— or in charge of their world perceptions— were scared too. While the news media were painstakingly familiar with the element of fear, this fear was authentic, and it alarmed everyone.
I also remember how strange it felt that the television was on. At school we learned about the world through the filters of textbooks, never straight off the TV. My classmates weren’t the only non-traditional viewers that day; teachers and employees all over kept the newsfeed constant. These elements— genuine fear and a receptive audience— rendered the traditional US approach to news useless and revealed how US media, in comparison with foreign news sources, uses fear to draw in viewers.
News media depends upon advertising. Since advertisers want to market their products as widely as possible, news corporations must entice plenty of viewers to stay afloat. News, therefore, is not just about information. While networks attempt to objectively deliver facts, they draw upon curiosity and emotions as well. Celebrity news and human interest stories attract viewers, but so does fear. In an article about the use of fear in news media and popular culture, David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski assert that “popular culture [is] oriented to pursuing a ‘problem frame’,” (Altheide and Michalowski, 475) in which media isn’t interesting unless it’s problematic. Furthermore, if the problems don’t pose a personal threat, incentive to watch is still limited. It answers, according to Altheide and Michalowski, the press’s major question:...