The ethics of fear and how it undermines an informed citizenry

Fear is a powerful emotion. When people are afraid, they react. It can also be put to use. When people have a vested interest in motivating other people to react, they may try to capture their attention through fear.

Thanks to the Internet, people have more access to more information at their fingertips than ever before in human history. Yet, this creates a new challenge for those who are trying to produce and disseminate information. What has emerged is an “attention economy,” where capturing people’s attention can often be challenging. Organizations that depend on people’s attention – including news media – go to great lengths to seize their focus by any means possible.

In a fast-moving information landscape, fear can sell almost as well as sex. Fearful headlines draw people in by capitalizing on their concerns and anxieties. Politicians, pundits, and journalists use fear mongering to draw attention to issues, often justified as informing the public. The more limited the channel – or the more likely that someone will walk on by – the more tempting it is to use exaggerated and fear-producing frames.

From soundbytes to headlines to tweets, quick and dirty messages are designed to provoke reaction. TV news and radio talk show programming use auditory queues, linguistic patterns, and segment cliffhangers in order to entice people to stay attentive. Fear is regularly employed because it works. Fear generates attention and helps draw in an audience.

As our society grows increasingly networked, our attention faces a critical crossroads. On one hand, we are presented with increasing volumes of information and our access to available sources of information continues to grow. Meanwhile, our time and attention is still severely limited and, increasingly, commoditized. Given these conflicting trends, the battle for people’s attention is likely to grow. But at what costs? And with what implications?

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry and, ideally, the role of the journalist is to inform the public. But, in a capitalist-oriented society, the product of a journalist’s efforts must be valued in commercial terms. Thus, journalists and editors are not simply pursuing stories to inform the public; they are selecting for narratives that will entice desirable viewers in order to appease advertisers. Given these very real pressures, how should we understand the ethics of using fear to increase attention? …

Capturing attention, at whatever cost

The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear. In the 1970s, the scholar Herbert Simon argued that “in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

His arguments give rise both to the notion of “information overload” but also to the “attention economy.” In the attention economy, people’s willingness to distribute their attention to various information stimuli create value for said stimuli. Indeed, the economic importance of advertisements is predicated on the notion that getting people to pay attention to something has value.

News media is tightly entwined with the attention economy. Newspapers try to capture people’s attentions through headlines. TV and radio stations try to entice people to not change the channel. And, indeed, there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention, often with a reputational cost. Yellow journalism tarnished newspapers’ credibility with scary headlines intended to generate sales. The history of radio and television is sullied with propaganda as political ideologues leveraged social psychology to shape the public’s opinion.

Now, along comes social media. Social media brings with it massive quantities of information – unscripted, unedited, and uncurated. Going online is like swimming in an ocean of information. The very notion of being able to consume everything is laughable, even as many people are still struggling to come to terms with “information overload.” Some respond by avoiding environments where they’ll be exposed to too much information. Others try to develop complicated tactics to achieve balance. Still others are failing miserably to find a comfortable relationship with the information onslaught.

Given the increase of information and media, those who want people to consume their material are fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. Anyone who does social media marketing knows how hard it is to capture people’s attention in this new ecosystem.

The more stimuli there are competing for your consideration, the more that attention seekers must fight to incentivize you to look their way. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw people in. …

When I was a child, the size of the paper and the length of the news hour limited the amount of information that a news media outlet could disseminate. When CNN took news to a 24-7 format and talk radio emerged, more news was needed to fill the time. Rather than using that time to unpack complex geopolitical news, most news channels took to increasing their coverage of juicy stories – gossip about celebrities, biopics on everyday people, and stories about the grotesque, bizarre, or esoteric.

The local news mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” went to another level such that people heard about horrible things happening outside of their local world. The shift to the Internet has only increased this trend, as news media outlets report on man-eating snakes and meth-addicted parents letting their kids starve to death. Are these stories enticing? Definitely. But are they typical? Definitely not. Yet, when people hear stories of people, they imagine these people to be close to them.

News media is leveraging the Internet to broadcast stories and attract attention from viewers. To enable this, they often make it easy for viewers to spread stories via email, Facebook, or Twitter. What circulates is often the content with the least geopolitical consequence. Fearful messages spread, particularly stories that play into parental anxieties. When journalists are rewarded for viewership, there’s a perverse motivation to play into people’s attraction to freak shows and horror, regardless of the broader social consequences.

Journalists and news media are responding to existing incentives. They’re incentivized to generate audiences that they can then sell to advertisers. They’re incentivized to capture attention by any means possible. The underlying incentive to inform and educate is still there, but it’s muddied by the corporatized incentives to increase eyeballs. Left unchecked and incentivized to increase viewership at whatever costs, news media will continue to capitalize on fear and increase the culture of fear in the process. …

Combatting fear in an attention economy

In an attention economy, the brokerage of attention is a form of power. What news media covers and how it covers it matter. There’s a fine line between creating an informed citizenry and creating a fearful citizenry.

Just as journalists think through the consequences of covering suicides in their reporting, so too must they be thoughtful about how they choose to cover issues that induce, promote, or spread fear. Capturing people’s attention is critical, but increasing societal fear in order to capture attention has significant consequences that must be considered. Journalists and news agencies have an ethical responsibility to account for the externalities of their reporting.

As we fully embrace a networked society, we need to consider what guiding principles should influence decisions about the spread of information. I would argue that three principles should be at the center of contemporary journalistic practice:

  1. Journalists always make choices about what to cover and what not to cover. Maintain a commitment to creating an informed and healthy society and focus on stories that help the public better understand the complex world in which we live.
  2. Seek to avoid distortion and strive for nuance and accuracy, even when focused on soundbyte messaging.
  3. Never forget that journalism is a public good. All communication is impression management. Use language and messaging to combat fearful impressions and increase the public’s understanding.

Just as societies are dependent on information to enable citizenry, societies can be undermined and fragmented through fear. There is nothing neutral about the practice of reporting and it behooves journalists to draw from anthropologists and reflexively account for how their work affects the communities they serve. As our society gets increasingly networked, we need to hold onto the importance of creating a healthy citizenry. Key to that is a commitment to not allow fear to take over.

danah boyd is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. This essay is part of a larger work on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. These ideas will be presented during a symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. danah boyd will participate in a panel at 2:45 p.m. on “The Story: What Stories Do People Want and Need?” The event will be live streamed on Poynter.org, where there is also a complete schedule.

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  • Anonymous

    Fear and greed are the two fundamental factors that drive our very existence – economic and otherwise.

    To believe that an informed electorate actually understands all of the economic theory behind the dire economic straights America now finds citizens confronted with – is a bit of a stretch.

    All that’s needed is for one to observe the +/- trending lines for male and female voters CNN touts and trails across the bottom of the TV screen as the candidates verbalize their feeling on the question offered by the moderator. And to claim that these monitored individuals are “undecided” is really all but a joke!

    Plain and simple – this election now resembles more of a popularity contest if you observe what CNN calls the “undecided” voter!