Connection and Fear: Television in the 21st Century

13612203_10206155636603188_4130233331516496311_n By Gavin Davies

Although smart phones have revolutionized media access, for most people in the world it is still television networks that bring news of the world into their lives. However, T.V. news has had to compete with new technologies and entertainment, which created the conditions for an increased scope and style of news coverage. While this trend has illuminated more people to more global issues, it was also able to show more of the various conflicts that go on in the world on any given day, and created reactionary domestic responses because of it.

For instance, the strong reaction to Muslims in the West has no doubt been in part due to the continual coverage of the conflicts in the Middle East, and the style of reporting on terror attacks in the West. But what effect exactly has this had on the way people relate to news, how does it effects their lives, and what is way to overcome the challenges this raises?

How Media Creates an “Experience”

It is well documented that people cultivate a sense of identity through the media that they consume, which in turn affects the narratives dominant in domestic politics (Thompson 1995, p. 35). It’s the reason why there are regional differences in what gets reported on and from what perspective; an event occurs that reporters think resonates with people, and then how its reported shapes how people see the world, which in turn increases the demand for ideologically resonant content and reporting, which perpetuates the cycle. The logic behind how narratives manifest can be therefore be found in how the news itself is presented, with the two main types of presentation being realism and naturalism. The former is typical of daily news broadcasts, with the presence of an objective newscaster, and a measured narration over a series of images; the latter is a documentary style that is more popular in social media where the audience is taken into the news through a viewpoint of a person in the news themselves (Robertson 2010, p. 27). Since the realist media approach is most common on television news, the way people experience shocking, newsworthy events is through a selection of images that create an easily discernable moral framework or truth to judge the event by, instead of a greater sense of historical context and awareness, due to the pressure to both entertain and inform (Robertson 2010, p. 1).

The most notable proponent of critiquing this phenomenon of imagined truth is Jean Baudrillard, as epitomized in his essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The way the war was presented to Western audiences was comparable to the war simulation equipment used by military personnel, so that reality was made to look like a video game (Baudrillard 1995, p. 4). This meant that the audience was treated to a movie-like spectacle from the Western view that effaced the history of the conflict and distorted reality (Baudrillard 1995, p. 2). This was in a time when war had never been live reported on before, and CNN was trying to be a groundbreaking news organization by being the source of all meaningful knowledge in the West. This myth was often shattered, however, when correspondents would be asked questions, only to reply that they were also watching CNN in order to find out what is happening (Baudrillard 1995, p. 2).

This television dynamic has developed since then, as news organizations work to diversify narratives and the types of media and sources that have become acceptable has broadened. Media sharing technology has shifted television towards adopting a naturalist, first person immersion into news stories. These factors create the ability for international audiences to build up a willingness to hear news from the perspective and through the voice of the marginalized. This is what the media theorist Roger Silverstone calls “media hospitality” (2006, p. 66). Though there are limits to this hospitality, it is a trend that moves us away from living in Baudrillard’s simulacra, and towards a reconceptualization of the audiences domestic and international reality. This leads us to one of the most important aspects of the experience of cultures and conflicts transcending borders: the effects through perceived distance (Dayan 2007, p. 118).

What Are the Effects of Televised Conflict on the Audience?

The consequence of the naturalist style images and videos of war and violence means that the conflict becomes more real and multifaceted, but also more emotional and limits the room for rational reflection. This emotional aspect is one of the most important components of televised conflict, and it warrants investigation how effective the transmission of the experience of war is through television and its impact on the social and political sphere. The first person style cultivates an intense and immediate emotional reaction, be it shock or sympathy, and creates a long lasting psychological impact; in fact, there has been well-documented evidence of how watching television coverage of terrorist attacks can induce heightened anxiety and long term emotional distress (Hamblen 2002).

It can affect people of all ages, though children are the most vulnerable. A research study in Kuwait found that 65% of children who had not been personally affected by war, but watched violent news coverage of the Gulf War, had an increased incidence of PTSD symptoms (Sloan 2000, pp. 513-520). These effects have been corroborated in other studies, such as one conducted in the US from 2000 to 2005. The study set out to collect longitudinal data on media consumption habits from an internet-based survey of a representative sample of Americans. It began by following their media consumption habits, but after September 11th, it turned into a study that looked at the impact of terrorism witnessed through television. By having baseline data of mental and physical health at the start of the study, the researchers were able to verify that acute stress responses went up immediately after the attacks, and also after US invaded Iraq (Association for Psychological Science, 2012).

After taking into account the subject’s previous mental and physical health and responses to media, they were able to determine that watching four or more hours of television about war or violence consistently raised their physiological and mental stress levels, and the effects of this level of media consumption resulted in statistically significant increases in “post-traumatic stress symptoms and physical health problems two to three years later” (Association for Psychological Science, 2012). So while the reporting on international news opens up room for the average person to better reflect on their position in the world, which can drive change domestically as seen in the Arab Spring, the content itself is still emotionally scarring. So what does this mean for the future of transnational television media consumption?

The future is a duality: first, as media organizations diversify and grow in similar ways to Al Jazeera, more of the West and East perspectives will merge and interact. This will cause increased global awareness of other cultures and provide a means of gaining sympathy for international causes, and build more cosmopolitan identities. For example, wars like what occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1998-2003 that killed millions and went largely un-reported are in theory more likely to cause international concern if they happened today (Harvey 2012). Instead of needing a straightforward cause of war or needing the conflict to be in a country that is socially similar before Western media take notice (Harvey 2012), there will be a trend towards media hospitality. This can be ensured in practice though efforts to promote peace journalism, which means to promote objective, historically contextualized and humanized conflicts (Ottosen 2007, p. 4), to balance out the dominant sensationalist “war journalism” style.

Secondly, at the same time that there is this increased pressure developing more comprehensive social narratives, governments and nationalists will feel threatened. The trend will be to solidify narratives, and drive governmental policy to create barriers around international television networks. The threat of radicalization through media and terrorism in general will be utilized as a justification for limiting media expression, and will restrict international media that actively points out the state’s limitations that allowed such attacks to occur (Jackson 2006, pp. 121-123). These measures will be supported by the domestic population to an extent, due to the physical and emotional reaction to international violence and threats, and the uncertainty the new narratives bring (Lerner et al. 2003, p. 5).

The best way to combat this degradation of societal development was found in Gillespie’s research: media literacy. By teaching people how to have a more objective and critical evaluation and understanding of sources and narratives, it would greatly increase their resilience to “war journalism” and limit their acceptance of censorship (McNaughton-Cassill et al. 2007, p. 19). The most obvious first implementation of this would be in schools, but the goal would be to pressure media itself to cover the topic of media literacy and provide ongoing analysis of the viewpoints that went into the news presentation. But since this very unlikely to happen spontaneously, there needs to be an amplification of the current grassroots “anti fake-news” movement that the US Presidential campaign inspired. Media literacy, now more than ever, needs to be made a key issue when discussing the value of televised news.


The speed and proliferation of television has developed a space for increased media hospitality and openness to new ideas. However, there are costs to opening up domestic media to competition with foreign viewpoints and cultural narratives. Though these costs differ in nuance from country to country, the general trend is that there is a duality to media as it expands and intersects across nations; connection and fear. These two forces continually vie for the metaphorical and literal hearts and minds of television audiences. In doing so, traditional narratives are disrupted, and the public awareness of threats multiplies. In order to counter this fear while maintaining openness, there needs to be increased media literacy, and a balance between peace and war style journalism. Only then can we live in a conception of the public that truly transcends borders, where we can speak openly and honestly with each other and develop as a global society.




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Lynch, M. (2006) Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, New York: Columbia University Press.

McNaughton-Cassill, M.E., Novian, D.A., Holmes, T., and Smith, T. (2009) ‘Emotional Stress and Coping in Response to Television News Coverage of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks’, Journal of Media Psychology, 14 (1).

Ottosen, R. (2007) ‘Emphasising Images in Peace Journalism’, Conflict & Communication Online, 6 (1). 1-16.

Robertson, A. (2010) Mediated Cosmopolitanism: The World of Television News, Cambridge: Polity.

Seib, P. (2008) The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics, Washington: Potomac Books Inc.

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