Selling Fear and Amusement: News as Entertainment


The news media contribute to our deteriorating—but entertaining—political situation. Mr. Trump is President partly because he is entertaining. My research on TV news shows the promotion of the politics of fear is a byproduct of entertaining and sensationalized reports to build audience ratings. Contemporary news practices increasingly are wedded to new information technologies that provide visuals and images, particularly portable cameras and smart phones. The entertainment format of much of U.S. TV news promotes the use of video or other visuals that are dramatic, conflictual, and emotional.

Screen images dominate broadcast news as well social media. Investigations of news coverage of numerous local, national, and international news reports reveal how our current “news code” operates. Basically, TV tells time with visuals. Although the intent may be to use visuals to tell a story about something, the logic in use amounts to telling a story about the visual at hand. Events that are more likely to satisfy these format criteria are more likely to be broadcast.

Our work over the last 4 decades also demonstrates politicians and others who provide visual events and dramatic performances are more likely to receive news coverage. We have documented the profound effects this format-driven media coverage has had on social institutions ranging from sports, news, politics, education, and religion.

Contemporary news practices continue this trend. Indeed, even the prestigious evening network newscasts have adopted this approach, especially as social media have provided seemingly ubiquitous videos of a wide array of events, many of which are posted on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. As newscasts seek higher ratings, it should not be surprising that they have adjusted their selection of news items to include visually interesting bits that have already been viewed—or gone viral—on the internet and social media.

This has important consequences for the allocation of precious news time that influences what audiences learn is significant in domestic and international affairs.

For example, on December 11, 2018, ratings leader NBC Nightly News—now in its 46th year of broadcasting—chose to allocate more than 40% (8+ minutes) of its news ‘hole’ of 21 minutes to items largely driven by available video. Six of the fifteen news items received coverage because of visual material. I briefly summarize these:

Trump, Pelosi, and Schumer in Made-for-TV Oval Office Special About His Border Wall and Government Shutdown

1. The 2nd report lasted 3 minutes: This was video of a meeting between President Trump and Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in front of cameras, with the President threatening to shut down the government if he did not get funding of $5 billion for a border wall. This was a performance for the cameras, and could have been more briefly summarized. (This was also carried by ABC, CBS. PBS, etc).

2. The 7th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of smart camera video of NY Police forcibly taking an infant from his mother’s arms. This had been shown on a previous newscast as well. The charges against the woman were dropped. An official said that this was not a good police incident. (CBS devoted :20 and ABC :10).

3. The 12th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of a voice over video of a man helping a woman who was having a seizure on an airline flight. The good Samaritan was also interviewed. Two doctors on the flight said that there was no reason to abort the flight rather than continue to its destination where help would be available. There are hundreds of in-flight medical emergencies, and most—like this one—are benign and not broadcast because video is not available. (CBS report lasted 1:30).

4. The 13th item lasted :15 seconds: A video of a youth riding on the back of a bus was described as risky and not a good idea. There was no news story whatsoever.

5. The 14th report lasted 1:25: This consisted of smart camera video of NY police urging and assisting people to jump from a burning building. The grainy video was dramatic.

6. The 15th report lasted 1:15: As part of the Inspiring America segment, a partially paralyzed man, aided by an exoskeleton, walked across a stage to receive his diploma at Florida International University. It is a feel-good story that would not have been shown without the video. (ABC summarized the walk in :10).

Nearly eight and a half minutes of questionably “news-worthy” reports took precedence over other national and international items. It is ironic, at a time when zealots pummel journalism as fake news, NBC, just like all the other networks, promotes audience entertainment rather than information for citizens.

David L. Altheide is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and author of “The Media Syndrome.”


If It Bleeds, It Leads: Understanding Fear-Based Media

Managing depression requires you to mind your media intake

by Deborah Serani Psychology Today

News is a money making industry. One that doesn’t always make the goal to report the facts accurately. Gone are the days of tuning in to be informed straightforwardly about local and national issues. In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.

Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Being glued to the television, reading the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares – but it also raises the probability of depression relapse. In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer arace to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

News programming uses a hierarchy if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety. The success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimismwith fatalistic thinking. News conglomerates who want to achieve this usemedia logic, by tweaking the rhythm, grammar, and presentation format of news stories to elicit the greatest impact. Did you know that some news stations work with consultants who offer fear-based topics that are pre-scripted, outlined with point-of-view shots, and have experts at-the-ready? This practice is known as stunting or just-add-water reporting. Often, these practices present misleading information and promote anxiety in the viewer.

Another pattern in newscasts is that the breaking news story doesn’t go beyond a surface level. The need to get-the-story-to-get-the-ratings often causes reporters to bypass thorough fact-checking. As the first story develops to a second level in later reports, the reporter corrects the inaccuracies and missing elements. As the process of fact-finding continually changes, so does the news story. What journalists first reported with intense emotion or sensationalism is no longer accurate. What occurs psychologically for the viewer is a fragmented sense of knowing what’s real, which sets off feelings of hopelessness and helplessness – experiences known to worsen depression.

An additional practice that heightens anxiety and depression is the news station’s use of the crawl, the scrolling headline ticker that appears at the bottom of the television, communicating “breaking news.” Individuals who watch news-based programming are likely to see one, two, or even three crawls scroll across the screen. The multitasking required to read the crawls and comprehend the actual newscast comes easy to some viewers, whereas others report feeling over-stimulated. One could easily change the channel to interrupt the transmission of such information. However, crawls are not relegated to just news channels. Unlike the viewing experience of the past, crawls are now more prominent during entertainment programs and often serve as commercials for nightly newscasts or the upcoming weekly news magazine show. The crawls frequently contain fear-driven material, broad-siding an unsuspecting viewer.

It’s been said that fear-based media has become a staple of popular culture. The distressing fall-out from this trend is that children and adults who are exposed to media are more likely than others to

(a) feel that their neighborhoods and communities are unsafe

(b) believe that crime rates are rising

(c) overestimate their odds of becoming a victim, and

(d) consider the world to be a dangerous place.

News media needs to return to a sense of proportion, conscience, and, most important, truth-telling. Until that happens, help inoculate yourself against feeling overwhelmed by doing the following:

  • Consider limiting your exposure to media. Give yourself a set time once or twice a day to check in on local and global happenings.
  • Consider choosing print media for your information gathering rather than visual media. This can reduce the likelihood that you get exposed to emotionally laden material. Home pages on the internet can give you an overall sense of what’s going on, as can headline news channels that update stories on the hour.
  • Remember that you have the power to turn off the remote, link out of a website or change the radio station. Don’t let yourself be passive when you feel media is overwhelming you.
  • Know that other people will have a different tolerance for media stories and their details. If someone is expressing too much of a story for your own comfort, walk away or communicate your distress.
  • Consider having an electronic-free day, and let your senses take in the simpler things in life.


Altheide, D. (2002). Creating fear: News and the construction of crisis. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Gerbner, G., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1999). Profiling television violence. In K. Nordenstreng & M. Griffin (Eds.), International media monitoring (pp. 335-365). Hillsdale, NJ: Hampton Press.

Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. New York: Basic Books.

Kovach, B., & Rosenthal, T. (2001). The elements of journalism: What news-people should know and the public should expect. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Serani, D. (2008). If it bleeds, it leads. The clinical implications of fear-based programming in news media. Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, 24(4), 240-250.

(header image: TVTropes: You Can Panic Now!)





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