“If it bleeds, it reads” is the mantra that US marketing and media live by today. The media knows that it exists in an increasingly competitive “attention economy,” and that feeding people dull facts is not an effective tactic for keeping viewers captivated. Since more viewers translates into higher advertising value and therefore higher revenue, the media as an industry has increasingly relied on any tactic that will capture viewers’ attention. The most effective marketing strategy works by capitalizing on our fear of death.
For the marketing strategy to work, the media must convince people that they are in danger; thereby, staying informed means staying safe. The tactics to achieve this goal have been perfected over the past few decades—news channels have used purposefully conveyed information in an ambiguous and misleading fashion to foster a sense of chaos, have deliberately withheld stories to make “breaking news” more shocking, and have even hired consultants to calculate every word and visual to produce maximum impact. As competition between media outlets increased, so did the media’s need for more gripping stories, and, therefore, their tendency to sensationalize events. Even CBS, once associated with Walter Cronkite—an anchorman who fearlessly spoke the truth and was dubbed “the most trusted man in America”—has not published reporters who can come close to claiming a similar title in the recent past.
Unfortunately, the most important stories often don’t receive the attention they deserve until they can be portrayed as threats to large audiences. In the early 1980s, mainstream media outlets used this tactic to capitalize on the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Before the story received widespread attention, The New York Times published the first article on a rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, which was suddenly affecting 41 homosexual men due to an unusual failure in their immune systems. As more information on the disease was unveiled, a few news programs reported on this contagious “gay cancer.” The New York Post published an article in 1983 written by political commentator Patrick Buchannan which read, “The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” With a few exceptions, the “gay plague” was mostly ignored in mainstream media—that is, until mainstream news outlets realized they could highlight the ways AIDS also threatened straight people.
Everything changed in May of 1983 when the The New York Times reported on a study that found that AIDS could be transmitted to heterosexuals through “routine close contact.” AIDS, now renamed, was sensationalized practically overnight. Stories about AIDS flooded front pages, starting with Newsweek’s cover, “EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and Deadly Disease Called AIDS May Be the Public Threat of the Century. How Did It Start? How Can It Be Stopped?” Life magazine followed suit with their article “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.” Once media outlets discovered AIDS had potential to strike fear into the hearts of the majority of their audience, they exploited the disease’s potential to attract attention.
Televised news picked up on the AIDS crisis shortly afterwards. Anchors played up the ambiguity and dramatic threats associated with the disease. Publicizing a disease with such a high mortality rate and mystery surrounding its transmission generated fear, as well as profits, for the media. Soon, unintended consequences began to crop up. Parents wouldn’t let their kids go to school if it meant they’d be in close contact with high-risk individuals. Hate crimes—such as the murder of 23 year-old, openly gay Charles Howard in Maine—became more prevalent. However, none of this stopped the media from continuing to peddle fear.
Instead of fueling a public panic around AIDS, American media outlets could have taken the Brazilian media’s approach—even though HIV/AIDS presented a huge problem in Brazil, their early response to the disease is seen as a success story. The media pressured politicians into supporting AIDS victims, funding AIDS research, and spreading awareness on how to contain the virus. In this way, it pursued the opposite strategy to the American media and avoided capitalizing on fear.
More recently, Ebola has become the focal point of the media’s efforts to exploit fear. The initial reports on the supposed outbreak of the disease in the US were excessively dramatized. The media essentially ignored the thousands of deaths Ebola was causing in West Africa until the pathogen hit American soil. After this point, however, major TV news networks seized on the epidemic because they realized they could spin the story as a potential threat to Americans. Headlines became increasingly outrageous; CNN referred to Ebola as “The ISIS of Biological Agents.” In response, popular right wing figures, including Bill O’Reilly, started calling for travel bans to and from infected West African countries. While British media aired interviews with virologists who assured everyone that Ebola would be contained, American media once again took the route of dramatizing the disease. Major news outlets showcased people like Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, who claimed that Ebola could seep into the country through the Mexican border.
Although the media’s responses to both AIDS and Ebola were similar, there is one dangerous difference between them: the rise of social media. Before, stories could only spread on television and paper. Now, sharing news is easier ever. For example, a popular story on Facebook claimed that a kindergarten class in Wortham, TX, was infected with Ebola after coming into contact with a Liberian exchange student. Several commentators had given the article the appearance of authority, while in fact the article was originally intended as a piece of satire. If fake headlines can become viral so easily, social media is a breeding ground for the Fear Industrial Complex, and the media knows it.
We tend to ignore the fear of death so we can function normally in our day-to-day lives. Thus, reminders of our mortality reliably capture our attention. Ebola, missing planes, and beheadings dominate the news because the media caters to our morbid fascination. We cannot forget, however, that an entire industry’s survival depends on cultivating our fear. By participating in this cycle as viewers, we play a passive role in sensationalizing stories that deserve sober attention.