Rationalizing Fear: How Media Coverage of Violence Shapes American Culture

For a few fleeting weeks during the summer of 2012, nearly every cable news channel and headline was devoted to Rudy Eugene, a Florida man who viciously attacked a homeless man in Miami, biting off most of his face. It was a ready-made story for a culture that was obsessed with zombies, and the headlines about a “Miami zombie attack” wrote themselves. The case was complicated by early speculation from a police source pointing to a then-unknown designer drug called “bath salts” as the likely culprit. This speculation triggered a full-scale media panic over this mysterious substance that could allegedly turn ordinary people into terrifying, violent, face-eating zombies.

The threat of a new drug epidemic loomed large, taking up an outsized role in public discourse and imagination. As scholars of mass communication and neuroscience, we undertook a comprehensive analysis of broadcast media coverage of the Miami incident, contextualizing it within the empirical scientific literature on bath salts and illicit drug use.

Our findings were stark — not only was the Miami incident framed incorrectly from the beginning, but bath salts use in the United States was all but nonexistent. Its effects, too, had been wildly misstated. It soon became clear that Eugene, the would-be “Miami zombie” himself, did not even have bath salts in his system at the time of the attack. The entire cycle of panic and fear that had accompanied the story turned out to be groundless speculation.

But by then, the link in the cultural imagination between “bath salts” and “face-eating zombies” had already taken root. At the crux of the intersection of our work was an interesting story: a story about misplaced fear, misunderstood danger, and the complex variables that work together to produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen famously termed “moral panics” — large-scale, exaggerated, sensationalized crises often propagated by the mass media. These moral panics often result in deeply entrenched false narratives around danger and risk for Americans.

Fear of international terrorism, for example, has profoundly shaped the lives of Americans. In the two decades since September 11, 2001, concern about international terror has significantly changed everything from immigration policy, to surveillance, to the way we travel. However, coverage of high-profile acts of terror often eclipses a much more insidious danger: garden-variety gun violence.

Everyday Terror

The United States has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership of any country, with many states requiring little to nothing in the way of waiting periods or background checks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased American gun ownership. Three of the five highest months of gun sales on record took place in 2021. Studies suggest that the ongoing pandemic and social unrest in the wake of large-scale protest movements have exacerbated fear of unrest and crime, prompting Americans to turn to guns. The broad category of “self-defense” is now one of the most commonly cited rationales behind the purchase of firearms.

But given the significant links between gun ownership and accidental injury or death, owning a gun for self-protection actually increases a person’s danger of injury or death. In 2020, a record 19,380 Americans were killed by guns, a statistic that does not even include the roughly 20,000–25,000 gun deaths by suicide that took place the same year.

Rates of gun violence across every category — domestic incidents, mass shootings, suicides, accidental discharges — are consistently at least 20 times higher in the U.S. than any other developed nation. Firearms in the home make domestic violence deadlier, lead to accidental discharge by children, and exponentially increase the likelihood of firearm-assisted suicide. Even in the tiny percentage of cases in which weapons are used in self-defense (less than three percent of all cases), gun owners are equally likely to injure or kill themselves while discharging a weapon as they are to injure or kill an attacker.

Through our research, we have learned that Americans have become desensitized to this invisible epidemic, fearing high- profile acts of terror more than everyday preventable gun violence. Many media scholars have found that news coverage often focuses on large-scale events like mass shootings, to the exclusion of broader, more nuanced big-picture stories about preventable injury and death.

Naturally, sensational violent acts are newsworthy, but it is crucial for journalists and professional communicators to carefully consider and unpack the complex variables that fuel gun violence in the U.S., including access issues, mental health considerations, and Americans’ misplaced perceptions of risk.

Additionally, American media tend to favor an episodic (individual level) frame for tragedy, while European media tend to tell a broader (thematic) picture. This environment helps exacerbate a culture of gun violence in the U.S.

In the wake of two mass shootings in Finland in 2008 and 2009, for example, most of the news coverage focused on communal healing, the way Finns were coming together in national unity, and big-picture questions about social factors that led to the shootings. They did not name the culprit. In coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting one year prior in the U.S., meanwhile, most coverage focused on the culprit, Cho Seung-Hui, framing the event as a one-off standalone tragedy perpetrated by a madman.

Misplaced Fear

We tend to be bad at assessing risk — we are trained to fear strangers as kids, for example, but family members and acquaintances statistically pose a much greater threat to children in terms of abuse than “stranger danger.” Alcohol is the number one date-rape drug, but we are taught to fear sedative drugs and other less commonly used substances.

We see this desensitization to everyday threats continue in American coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. The drumbeat of preventable death is equivalent to a September 11 attack every two to three days in the United States, but it is hard for media consumers to wrap their heads around this kind of sustained loss.

We are currently working on a book that builds on a decade of collaboration to tell this bigger story about fear and risk: What are we afraid of, and why? How do we understand the science of risk and fear? How do shared culture, media consumption, and political narratives help drive beliefs about risk and danger? Which fears are rational and evidence-based, and which are driven by sensationalism or misinformation?

The truth, it turns out, is that the answers are complex — and sometimes even counterintuitive.

Ruth DeFoster (she/her) is the director of undergraduate studies at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on media coverage of crime, terrorism, gun violence, and identity.

Natashia Swalve (she/her) is an assistant professor and chair of Psychology and Sociology at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. Her research focuses on interdisciplinary perspectives in drug addiction, including vulnerabilities to and societal influences on drug use.