Television, Fear, Control

“When I was a child and I used to live in Tripoli, I remember my mother as the bravest person. She was not scared of going out to work and do the shopping with bombs falling around. Now she lives in Rome. She’s alone most of the day and television is her best friend. By night she’s afraid that someone could get in her house and she never goes out for a walk when alone”

These are Marco’s words, a young man born in Lybia at the end of the ‘70s who moved to Italy as an adolescent.


Does television disseminate fear and need for control?


The link between bad news and fear in daily life has been investigated since the 1960s, when people started realizing that too often media represent a world much worse than the one we inhabit. In such a world, crime and tragedy are out of our control, therefore we need an Orwellian big eye looking over us.

Several surveys in different social-demographic contexts have been conducted. In 2010 the International Communication Association questioned 546 women from 55 different towns and cities (country not specified) about their television using behaviour and their fear to be sexually assaulted. The result showed that the more the interviewee was exposed to television, the more she was likely to live in fear. Similarly, a survey conducted in 1998 by media researchers Romer, Jamieson and Aday in Philadelphia on a sample of 2,369 residents, showed that those watching television extensively were those who pinpointed crime and a feeling of insecurity as the major problems of the city.

Sensationalist news is designed to maximise the audience and mainstream media profit. Furthermore, it diverts attention from more important issues. But, even more importantly, it makes us feel small and fearful, creating the conditions in which more mechanisms of control can be imposed upon the subject.

The more we feel unsafe outside our four walls, the more television is our only window on the world. The more we feel unsafe, the more we welcome new tools of control. For instance, not many people are concerned with the proliferation of CCTV and how their often unclear purposes clash with civil liberties, as the law and policy analyst Aileen Xenakis argues: “The [CCTV’s] regulations must be transparent and overt, and must include language to protect civil liberties in an effort to address the concerns regarding misuse of CCTV technology. The agency must identify the reasons as to why their goals cannot be better served in a seemingly less pervasive or less expensive way”.

Another example is the Internet: why do we accept any kind of online surveillance? I am not referring only to the commercial one aimed at building customers’ profiles, nor do I want to hold China or the Iranian Intranet as the only examples. Surveillance affects the “democratic” countries too, finding its justification in people’s fear.

As the sociologist David Lyon explains: “The Internet quickly became a platform for many kinds of surveillance, not only directly commercial […] the FBI’s ‘Carnivore’ system uses ‘sniffers’ to check millions of email messages, and the International ‘Echelon’ intelligence-gathering system uses even more powerful online tools to check on diplomatic negotiations, organized crime, terrorism and groups believed to pose a political threat.”

In the light of what we have considered, it becomes clear that television and other mainstream media play a special and crucial role in creating the disciplinary network into which we are embedded.

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