Is There a Connection Between Fear Baiting and the Concept of Fake News

Many of you who once wrote and read on Open Salon will remember Sage Merlin.  Some of you may know him personally.  I’m a Facebook friend and, although I go to Facebook less and less, occasionally I read his posts on FB.  Yesterday there were several about his decision to ride out the hurricane at his home in the Miami area.  The roof was starting to leak 20 hours ago, and 8 hours ago he posted this:

“My electricity keeps switching on and off, so I have to post short notes in order to make sure things get posted.

I am beginning to suspect that those who think that there is a lot of hype in the hurricane coverage might just have a point.”

He went on to say that despite numerous tornado warnings he didn’t know that any had touched down.  He seemed to think that the numerous cranes sitting around Miami were a greater danger, and wanted to know what moron left them there.

So, I have a few observations about the process of sales.

There are a number of psychological tricks that are used to entice consumers to buy a product or an idea and one of those is playing on a person’s fear. 

The neocons used fear to sell the American public on the invasion of Iraq.  We invaded Afghanistan because Al Qaeda was thought to be there.  We invaded Iraq because we were told that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”.  Following the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11/2001 Americans were frightened and playing on that fear allowed our leaders to take us into another war.

We are sold home security systems because of fear of burglary despite the fact that we live in a low crime area.  We are sold water filtration systems because our drinking water might not be safe.  We buy organic foods in order to avoid the ingestion of agricultural chemicals.  Fear works better than sex which works incredibly well.

Increasingly, fear is used as a tool to sell everything including advertising.  The 24/7 news coverage has changed journalism so that issues are never resolved.  Instead of sending investigative journalists to the scene to get to the bottom of a story the news media use a triangle of a talking head, and two individuals of dubious qualification with opposing viewpoints about any subject.  The result is that viewers are polarized in their views based on emotion, not facts.  This approach keeps viewers coming back in the hopes of finding resolution that never comes.

Why did we watch for a month as the search went on for the missing Malaysian airliner?  We watched because we have a horror of dying in a plane crash.  We watched the news to find out what went wrong in the hopes that we could somehow avoid whatever happened there.  As it looked like the plane went down in a practically uncharted area of the Indian Ocean we had a further horror of going down where we could never be found to become food for denizens of the deep.  More unresolved fear kept us watching.

Weather reporting media like The Weather Channel do everything possible to make watching the weather attractive.  This is not an attack on The Weather Channel.  I think they must do a lot of things right.  The personnel seem to work an entire lifetime for the company which is impressive.  They hire meteorologists to explain weather phenomena instead of “bobble headed bleached blonds”.

But, in order to sell advertising, they have to make the weather more attractive than graphs of isobars. So, they put their reporters out in the midst of storms demonstrating the blowing rain ahead of hurricanes, and use a variety of really dazzling digital media to illustrate changes in the weather.  All of that is OK.  What is not OK is starting to tell us about a tropical depression somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic that might become a threat.  We have enough to worry about without worrying about something that may never materialize. 

The real problem is inflation of a threat.  Hurricanes are portrayed as being possibly “the perfect storm”, “the storm of the century”, “the worst ever.”  Like sportscasters promoting non-existent contests between players for the highest batting average or most homeruns of a season, weather forecasters talk about the threat of the highest storm surge ever, or some other possible record.  Residents are told to pack up and move out.  It is going to get really bad.  And then none of that happens.

Like the little boy who cried wolf, weather forecasters make us cynical of their projections and then when the wolf does come we ignore the threat.  The problem, of course, is that crying wolf made the little boy feel powerful because it sent people scrambling.  The weather forecasters are being rewarded financially for scaring us.  They have no incentive to stop.  Eventually, it will be the big one.  When people don’t evacuate their homes the weather people will say, “We told you so.”

Whether it is news media that intentionally fail to resolve an issue or weather forecasters who inflate threats the real problem is that viewers lose confidence in the process and begin to believe that news they don’t like is “fake news”.

Views: 122

Comment by koshersalaami on September 11, 2017 at 4:17am

It might be wise to differentiate between fear and drama, even though they're related. Fear is how the GOP works, drama is how the Weather Channel works.

You know Sage Merlin has on OurSalon account, right? His real name is Alan Milner. 


There are a lot of publications accusing Houston of ignoring zoning and wetlands, which is true, but the volume of rainwater they got hit with would have easily swamped all those wetlands if they'd been left in place.

Comment by Steel Breeze on September 11, 2017 at 4:32am

being without the idiot box has its advantages.....

Comment by koshersalaami on September 11, 2017 at 5:37am

The lack of planning is definitely wrong, but Harvey in Houston was about the hurricane. That's my only point. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on September 11, 2017 at 5:50am

Terry, Houston has a history of being opposed to city planning (no zoning for example).  Still, there are events like the flooding that can't be anticipated or prevented.

kosh, I didn't know that Alan had an account here.  He is one of the few members here with whom I've spoken.

About drama vs. fear.  Isn't drama a means of conveying a message?  As I thought about weather reporting it occurred to me that the emotions may be fear, if you are in the path, or relief, or even schadenfreude, if you are not.  It is more complicated than just manipulation through fear.  And to Terry's point it is a science susceptible to the effects of chaos.

We are predicted to get about 4 inches of rain today.  It was raining when I got up.

Comment by Rodney Roe on September 11, 2017 at 5:53am

We had rented a place near Apalachicola, FL in October.  I guess it will be a few days before we know whether it is fit for habitation.

Comment by alsoknownas on September 11, 2017 at 6:29am

The fear of loss is a greater motivator than the anticipation of gain. That's a standard to know in the world of sales.

You've got me worrying about this 105 year old house now. I never have retro-fit it for earthquakes. First I'll look up how many it's gone through so far. Maybe that will help me put it off just awhile longer.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 11, 2017 at 6:45am


Alan was involved in an effort I organized to move people from Open to here when Open had technical difficulties. Old story. We organized on a post that's still up. 

Comment by Anna Herrington on September 11, 2017 at 6:50am

"I am beginning to suspect that those who think that there is a lot of hype in the hurricane coverage might just have a point.”

With this event, considering the Caribbean has been completely devastated and many many areas rendered uninhabitable, and coming so soon after Harvey's devastation of Houston, plus it was historical event with two category 4 hurricanes hitting the U.S. back to back, I'd not think of this hurricane coverage as hype.

That said, while we don't have a TV, we watched live coverage through YouTube, something we've never done before, and we both hated it, remembering how it is with TV and the incessant need for news people to just keep talking and anticipating and suggesting what will happen next.

I thought that the worst issue in the coverage we did watch, how the reporters themselves *had to keep saying ... anything* to keep the cameras rolling. Seemed to encourage their deciding the future actions of something they had no ability to know. That became misleading, but I'm not sure it was meant to be fear-baiting. More like, what do we say now? The cameras are rolling!

After seeing Barbuda and Tortola post-Irma, I certainly wouldn't have stayed, but for those who did stay home in southern Florida, they were damn lucky she shifted west and downgraded so fast the way she has.

Comment by alsoknownas on September 11, 2017 at 9:57am

A local reporter in Florida did say in the middle of it all: " It is extremely windy".

That's the minimalist response.

Comment by Ron Powell on September 11, 2017 at 11:05am

" they don’t like is “fake news”....

The politicians who validate this sentiment are reprehensible hypocrites who aren't fit for public office....

The distinction between news and opinion has been tossed to the wind...and the 1st Amendment  along with it...

We now live in the era of "alternatuve facts" where any news that is not consistent with the views of the listener may be deemed "fake news" and the purveyors of such as not journalists but propagandists, abusers of the 1st Amendment rights, safeguards, and  protection.

Facts no longer matter and truth has become a casualty.


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