The world isn’t getting meaner – we just think it is. Bad things happen in the world, that much is certain, but our world is not as bad as what some would have you believe. The media would have you think that there is a murderer or a devastating earthquake around every corner. However, the world is just as dangerous today as it was 20 years ago. The difference is in the way the media tells us about it.
George Gerbner, a Professor of Communication from the US, coined the phrase mean world syndrome in 1968. Mean world syndrome describes people who think that the world is a scary, intimidating place, as a result of viewing too much negative material (both fictional and non-fictional) in the media. People who watch violent, aggressive, or scary programmes on TV or watch violent movies are likely to be affected by the mean world syndrome. However, this syndrome can also be caused by watching and reading too much negative news. And let’s face it, negative news outweighs positive news by at least two to one. An example of this is the Stuff.co.nz homepage. Of the main stories on the 20 February, 2014, six were positive, and a whopping fourteen were negative. We may not think that we are consuming a lot of negative media, but we are swallowing these stories of terrible wars, horrendous famine, gut-wrenching crimes, and more without a second thought. We are being spoon-fed stories of despicable murders, violence, and dangerous situations, and it is affecting the way we see the world. It is making us feel unsafe and terrified of the world around us.
Believe it or not, the world is actually becoming a safer place to be in. In America, crime rates between 1990 and 1998 dropped steadily by 33%. However, news coverage of crimes and murders has increased by a massive 473%. This shows that the world is not getting more violent, and that the media is just showing the violence more. Crime constitutes 30% of news bulletins, with government and political matters taking up 11%, health 7%, education 4% and poverty 2%. Murders, which make up between 27% and 29% of crimes reported in the news, are actually less than 1% of the crime rate. Crimes and other negative events in the world, such as wars, famines and disasters are reported far more often today than they were 20 years ago. This is because of the digital technology that we have – information can travel so much more quickly in this day and age. News reporters from around the world can quickly and easily send news reports anywhere in the world. This leads to better coverage of news, yes, but we also see so much more of the terrible things that are happening around the world. Some people believe that there are more crimes, more poverty, and more natural disasters now than there ever were, but this is untrue. It is simply being reported on more. Before the internet became widely used, newspapers had to rely on people’s phone calls and letters to find out about things that were happening. This meant that minor events overseas received less coverage. An example of news that may not have been covered before the internet is the whipping and macing of Russian protest band Pussy Riot, by Russian police. It was quite far away, and relatively insignificant in light of what else is going on in the world (just look at the Kiev Riots), but because we could get word of it quickly, it became a well known incident. This sort of thing gives us an onslaught of negative news, which can lead to people thinking that the world is more dangerous than it really is.
Another reason that we think that the world is more dangerous than it really is could be media sensationalism. News bulletins have to contend and jockey with each other and other more entertaining programmes to keep the ratings high. Boring news won’t make people watch their programme, so they try to make their stories a bit more interesting: they sensationalise and exaggerate news stories to make them seem more exciting and draw people in. They can do this by using language that sounds thrilling, using dramatic pictures, videos, and so on. An example of the news using hyperbole to ‘sell’ the programme can be seen in just about every ‘apocalypse’ since Y2K. Before the predicted Mayan end of the world in 2012, the news showed what seemed to be a much higher number of natural disasters and crimes than I had ever seen before. They were scaremongering, focusing on negative, scary news stories to cash in on apocalypse fears. An interesting study done in America shows the different style of reporting between America and China, and focuses on two separate shootings. The Americans focused on the flawed characteristics of the killers (mentally deranged, disturbed etc), while the Chinese focused on the outside influences (social isolation). I believe that this is indicative of a lot of Western media — they focus on negative, upsetting parts of the story. How often do you see a positive news story on the front page of the newspaper? Not half as often as you see murders, wars and poverty. Media sensationalises their stories to make them more exciting, and to get better ratings.
So what can be done to offset the mean world syndrome? I would suggest three things. One: read and watch less of the news. If you are watching or reading less of the sensationalised negativity that we call news, you are more likely to think that the world is a nicer, safer place. This is backed up by studies, which have shown that watching too much news can cause unnecessary fears, anxiety and worry. Step two would be for the media to sensationalise less. If news companies were to balance their coverage of negative news with positive news, people would believe that the world is a better place. An example of this would be ‘Deadly riots in Kiev | Woman cured of cancer’. This would lead people to have a better, healthier, more positive view of the world. My third recommendation on how to get rid of Mean World Syndrome is for everybody to just take the news with a grain of salt. Bad things do happen in our world, but so do good things. You never see people who are reunited with lost family members, or who recover from terminal illnesses in the news. Just remember: the world isn’t getting meaner – we just think it is.