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Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1999

The Construction of Fear

Barry Glassner

The paper derives applications of an observation about how fears are constructed by people in their daily lives in order to expand upon developments and critiques in constructionist analyses of scares in the news media.

KEY WORDS: fear; media; social construction; theory.

This essay proposes a link between scares promulgated through the news media and their acceptance by readers or viewers. Put simply, my proposal is this: Fear is constructed through efforts to protect against it. This conceptualization runs at right angles to the familiar notion of fear as an emotion that people employ in response to danger. On the contrary, I want to suggest that many fears are constructed to protect against other fears, and indeed, against fear itself. While I do not contend, as did President Roosevelt in 1933, that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," fear is certainly one thing we have to fear, and it often occupies a more pivotal position than sociologists commonly acknowledge. An appreciation of fear as constructed through the ways people protect themselves against fear, while counter-intuitive for those who view fear as a protective response to external dangers, is, nonetheless, common among at least one group of interpreters of human behavior. Therapists witness the phenomenon when they work with over-protected children who make sense of why they need so much protection by conjuring up all sorts of monsters and bogeymen. Therapists also encounter adults who dodge their fears of fraud, inadequacy, or mortality by incessant attention to minor malfunctions in their homes or their bodies. Therapists work also with anorexics who, unable or unwilling to face their fears of loss of control in intimate relationships, become terrified of fat.

Direct correspondence to Barry Glassner, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90089.


© 1999 Human Sciences Press, Inc.



Although my argument departs from his in important regards, I am indebted to the British psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, for bringing this perspective on fear to my attention. In his book, Terrors and Experts (Phillips 1995: 46), he tells a Sufi story about a Mullah who is standing in the yard outside his house in London, tossing corn. A man comes up to him and asks, "Why are you throwing this corn around?" "Because," says the Mullah, "it keeps the tigers away." "But there aren't any tigers here," the Englishman replies. "Well, it works then, doesn't it," the Mullah says. Phillips uses the story to make the point that fear, like desire, tells us very little about its object. We don't know whether the Mullah truly believes that tigers will come if he stops throwing the corn, though we suspect he does not, at least in his more rational moments. Nor does a hackneyed Freudian hypothesis of unresolved issues from the past seem probable. On that explanation, the Mullah had been afraid of real tigers earlier in his life, perhaps when he lived somewhere in which tigers actually attacked people. But that hypothesis won't do because then the Mullah would know that corn tossing does not actually protect against assaults by tigers. Phillips suggests two more likely possibilities. The corn throwing was a symbolic ritual that had been passed down through generations from the Mullah's ancestors who had reason to fear tigers. Or, through the corn tossing, the Mullah kept at bay, his fears of something other than tigers. In either case, the fundamental point is the same. Neither the things that people do to protect themselves individually and collectively, nor what they report and believe they are protecting themselves from, necessarily reveal their true fears. That fact provides, among other things, a basis for seeking out connections between large scale, socially constructed fears--what some sociologists call moral panics-- and fears within interpersonal relationships. It is hardly surprising that those two spaces (mediatized environments within which fears are promulgated and intimate relationships within which people receive and interpret messages and meanings) largely are kept separate in social and cultural analyses. Sociology and allied disciplines have been built, after all, on dualities such as micro versus macro, psychological versus sociological, agency versus structure, and hegemony versus resistance. Still, connections can be made. I suggest, for instance, that largely unfounded fears that receive star billing in the news media and political campaigns, and extravagant efforts undertaken to counter them, allow people to ignore, avoid, or pretend away, other fears that are uncomfortably close at hand. Consider a much studied panic of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Satanism scare. Nathan and Snedeker (1995) document that at the start of high profile ritualabuse cases, the children involved said they had not been molested. Children later changed their accounts at the urging of parents and law enforcement authorities. The tales of abuse that made it into the courts and news media typically came from mothers who were convinced the stories were true, Nathan and Snedeker

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document. Some of the women had been abused themselves and transferred those horrors onto their children. Others feared, sometimes with good reason, that a man with whom they were involved--a husband, boyfriend, brother, or father--was abusing their children or would do so in the future. Nathan and Snedeker found that still other mothers, who had not been victimized in those ways, used the figure of ritually abused children as a discursive vehicle for resistance--to protest against male dominance more generally. Allegations of children being raped by teachers and strangers allowed conventional wives and mothers to speak out without having to fear either that they would seem unfeminine or that they would be attacked, verbally or physically, by the targets of their circuitous criticism. 'The larger culture still required that women's complaints about inequality and sexual violence be communicated through the innocent, mortified voice of the child" (Nathan and Snedeker 1995: 240; and see Bromley 1991). Or reconsider the important work by Joel Best (Best and Horiuchi 1985; Best 1990) on Halloween bogeymen and other legendary victimizers of children. Best and others developed constructionist explanations for the activities of those who monger fears, and they applied social strain theory to explain public receptivity (Best 1990, 1995; Fine 1980). While both of those approaches--constructionism and strain--have considerable merit, notwithstanding some rather trenchant critiques (e.g., Goode 1994), neither the routines of claims makers nor social tensions fully account for why particular fears are embraced by journalists, politicians and the larger public. There is a generous gap, for instance, between the upheavals of the late 1960s and early '70s and acceptance of claims of poisoning of Halloween candy in the 1980s. Sociologists who have tried to connect the antiwar movement, inner city riots and the like to Halloween bogeymen have not been wholly successful. Best gets closest to a tangible connection when he proposes, "The form of strain most closely linked to a belief in Halloween sadism was the growing sense that children were no longer safe in the United States" (Best 1990: 142). When I went back, however, to news articles from the period, I was struck by another feature of the narratives. The heroines in many of the articles were full-time housewives, or else employed women who returned early from work to throw safe trick-or-treat parties for their children and their children's friends in homes and churches, or to escort kids on their rounds and inspect their treats (see, for example, Thackrey 1982; Barren 1982). To be sure, the prominence of those women in the news coverage supports a social strain hypothesis focussed on high and rising divorce rates at the time and on middle and upper income women leaving home in greater numbers to take jobs. But doesn't this choice of heroine also bespeak domestic fears and desires? These cookie-baking, prayer praying moms were no more realistic, as portrayed, than were the villains of the tales, the Halloween sadists. Revealingly missing from the stories were characters who resemble the audience: women and men who were



neither heroic nor horrendous but quietly harbored frightening fantasies about their own imagined actions or those of people they knew. Such folks and such fantasies have been missing as well from kindred stories in the news media. They were largely absent, for instance, in the numerous stories that ran in the early 1990s about Susan Smith and other women who murdered their children; in stories about mothers of 'crack babies'; in tales about pedophile priests; and with a slightly different twist, in the stories that ran after schoolyard shootings in 1998 and 1999. In a discussion of those panics of the 1990s (Glassner 1999), I suggest several explanations, some of which largely follow along constructionist and social strain lines of reasoning. If the proposal I am outlining in this essay has merit, however, the repeated telling and hearing of such tales needs to be understood also as akin to the Mullah's corn tossing. The repetition of the scary stories keeps fears that are more proximate, if often no less fanciful, at bay. The stories provide that service for individuals who watch or read them, for politicians who make use of them to garner votes and evade discussions of other policies and problems, but perhaps most fundamentally, for the reporters and editors who repeatedly retell the stories. The Goffmanian interpretation (Goffman 1974; Hartley 1996) of the labors and products of journalists, while irreplaceable, goes only so far in accounting for their retellings. To recognize that journalists work within frames, and that the frames effect which issues are covered and the ways they are covered, is to leave unaddressed the appeal of the frames. It is tempting, but too easy, to dodge the matter of their appeal by granting overdetermination to the frames themselves, either as vehicles of dominant ideology or of corporate power, or by treating the frames as self-perpetuating or overpowering in themselves. A COROLLARY AND EXAMPLE The appeal of a particular frame lies not solely in the pleasures and political and economic conveniences it affords, but also in the professional and personal inconveniences that it evades. Allow me to argue the point by reference to a couple of news stories that received a great deal of play in the U.S. media in the early and mid-1990s. The first story broke on March 19,1991. Had you read a newspaper or turned on a TV or radio newscast that day or the several days thereafter, you would have learned that the streets of America were more dangerous than a war zone. Journalists and pundits had been provoked to make that extreme assertion not by a rise in violent crime, but by a dramatic event. The Gulf War had just ended, and a soldier who returned home to Detroit had been shot dead outside his apartment building. A front-page story in the Washington Post portrayed the situation this way: Conley Street, on this city's northeast side, is a pleasant-looking row of brick and wood homes with small, neat lawns, a street that for years was the realization of the American

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dream for middle-income families. But in the past few years, Conley has become a street of crack, crime and occasional bursts of gunfire. And at 2:15 a.m. Monday, the bullets killed Army Spec. Anthony Riggs, something that all of Iraq's Scud missiles could not do during his seven months with a Patriot missile battery in Saudi Arabia. (Phillips, 1991). Described by his mother as a man who deeply loved his family and his country, Riggs reportedly had written home from Saudi Arabia, "There's no way I'm going to die in this rotten country. With the Lord's grace and his guidance, I'll walk American soil once again." But before that letter arrived, while Riggs was moving his wife and 3-year-old daughter to a new apartment, five shots rang out and witnesses heard the sound of screeching tires. A stranger had killed him to get his car. "His wife, Toni, found him dying in a gutter," the Post reported. Mrs. Riggs had warned her husband, readers learned, that there had been a shooting on the street earlier in the day, but he wouldn't listen. "He said he'd just got back from having missiles flying over his head, and a few shots weren't going to bother him," according to Toni's aunt, quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Harmon 1991). That, of course, was the larger point that reporters encouraged audiences to draw from the event. As the Post put it, "Riggs's death was a tragic reminder of President Bush's words recently when he announced a new crime bill: 'Our veterans deserve to come home to an America where it is safe to walk the streets'." No self-respecting social constructionist could fail to notice the efficiency with which journalists slotted this event into the random violence frame that has been popular in the news media (see Best 1999; Brownstein 1993). That observation does not elucidate, however, the blinding appeal of the frame. To embrace it, journalists had to depart from some of their customary procedures and understandings about their jobs. Shelby Coffey, head of ABC News and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, may have exaggerated when he asserted that a journalist "wears his skepticism like a medieval knight wore his armor" (quoted in Shaw 1996), but journalists (male and female alike) do not routinely suspend their skepticism to the extent they did in their accounts of the Riggs murder. In this instance, they named the wrong perpetrator, motive, and moral. It was the massive media attention, ironically, that resulted in the more accurate story coming out. Confronted with demands from legislators and citizen groups to catch Riggs' killer, the Detroit police launched an all-out investigation. While digging through garbage cans around the Conley Street neighborhood, an officer came upon a handgun that turned out to belong to Michael Cato, the brother of Riggs' wife Toni. Nineteen years old at the time and currently serving a life sentence for murder, Michael said in a confession that his sister had promised him a share of $175,000 in life insurance benefits. Had reporters been skeptical and made a few phone calls, they almost certainly would have stumbled upon at least some of this information. They might have learned, for example, that Toni had been making noises about dumping Anthony for some time, or that it was she who had arranged for a hefty life insurance policy for her husband before he went off to war. Reporters might also have checked



into Toni Riggs's past and discovered that she had not yet divorced her previous husband when she married Anthony. Or they might have discovered the existence of a letter Riggs wrote to his mother from Saudi Arabia. "Toni has wrecked my car. She is now bouncing checks... She is never home: 2:30 A.M., 4 A . M . . . . I would put my head through the neck of a hot sauce bottle to please her, but now I need happiness in return," People magazine, the only major publication I could locate that subsequently ran a full-length, corrected account, quoted him penning (Treen 1991; Anonymous 1991). Then too, had news writers checked with criminologists or homicide detectives, they might have been impressed as well by the improbability of a car thief murdering someone execution-style when a simple shot or two would have done the job. Carjacking victims seldom get shot at all, particularly if they don't resist (see Gibson and Zillmann 1994; Burke and O'Rear 1993). Undoubtedly, a variety of factors influenced journalists' approach to coverage of the incident in Detroit, including the topicality and convenience of the particular crime frame they chose. Still, the frame was appealing not only because of what it included and organized, but also because of what it excluded and permitted to remain unattended. The news media had had difficulty reporting on the Gulf War, a clash appropriately described by Baudrillard (1995) as a "deceptive war" (p. 62) in which "the enemy only appear[ed] as a computerized target" (p. 68). Journalists' troubles began even before the war got underway, and they almost certainly would have continued well past its official end had the news media continued to attempt to cover the war. Early on, support for the war had been drummed up in part by means of a high profile story and set of photographs about Iraqi soldiers destroying incubators in Kuwait hospitals and leaving babies to die, a story that turned out to have been planted by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. Later determined to have been greatly exaggerated if not completely false, that and other horror stories were influential in gaining public support for the war. They were supplied to the media by an American public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton (headed by George Bush's former chief of staff), which the Kuwaitis paid $11.5 million (Rabinovitz and Jeffords 1994; Munday, Rowse, and Arana 1992; Parker-Pope 1997). The war itself was depicted by the U.S. military and media as a swift, clean, nearly bloodless endeavor won by 'surgical air strikes' of buildings and munitions. Documentary evidence suggests otherwise, however. One hundred forty-six Americans and upwards of 100,000 Iraqis died. Yet during the war, the Pentagon kept the press away from the action and used tightly scripted briefings to spoonfeed only what the Generals and the President wanted known. As part of that spin, Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf were defined as the war's heroes. Grunts on the battlefield and in the air seemed almost irrelevant to a war fought with smart-bombs (see Gerbner 1992; "Frontline" 1991;Cohen 1994;Hallin 1991; Baudrillard 1995). Their homecoming, consequently, did not fit neatly in a traditional narrative about heroes returning from battle.

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When the Riggs murder came along, reporters eagerly used it to mark the end of the war on Iraq and the start of the next phase in the ongoing domestic war on crime. What a relief it must have been for reporters and editors to have an opportunity to put behind them a period in which they engaged in what CBS News anchor Dan Rather described as "suck-up coverage" and exhibited "a lack of guts to speak up, to speak out, to speak our minds" (MacArthur 1992).


If the frame chosen by journalists sometimes helps bring closure to coverage of a set of events or problems that they find difficult or uncomfortable to cover, my final example suggests a kindred phenomenon. By means of their selection of stones and frames, journalists and editors can evade discussion of other social issues. One of the most talked about pregnant persons in the world in early 1996 was a 10-year-old runaway. "With heavy makeup framing her exotic almond-shaped eyes and her long, dark hair piled high, Cindy Garcia looked at least 14," an Associated Press story began. "It wasn't until two weeks ago that the shocking truth came out. Cindy--8 1/2 months pregnant--had innocently handed welfare workers her birth certificate to qualify for food stamps and child support. Cindy, her belly bulging, was only 10" (Prodis 1996). Throughout a four day period during which the Texas police hunted for her, the media ran stories about how, as Britain's Daily Telegraph put it, "police and doctors are in a race against time," knowing that "with a 10-year-old body, she is going to require a Caesarean section and a lot of medical attention" (Hiscock 1996). Talk radio show hosts had a field day with the story as listeners and legislators discoursed on about how sick American society has become. Eventually, some of the news media (e.g., Franks 1996; Clark 1996) did take note of the fact, revealed after the girl's capture, that she was actually 14 and had said as much from the start. Never mind that neighbors had told reporters that Cindy was a pregnant teenager and social workers had said that her reading and math skills were those of a 9th or 10th grader. In the story's brief heyday, reporters casually dismissed these observations. "The truth is, she's a 4th-grade dropout. She hasn't been to school for more than a year," the Associated Press avowed. As it turned out, the girl's name wasn't even Cindy Garcia. It was Adella Quintana. Her mother, Francesca Quintana, had gotten a phony birth certificate for her daughter when she moved from Mexico to Houston to enroll the girl in American schools (Graczyk 1996; Sanchez 1996; Franks 1996). The social problem at issue here was not 'babies having babies,' as pundits put it, but the plight of a mother and her teenage daughter who, like many families before them, fled their homeland for what they hoped would be a better life in the U.S., only to experience new troubles. But in 1996, that story was scarcely being told. It had been nearly obliterated from American public discourse, partly by intense



fearmongering about Spanish-speaking immigrants and partly by what magicians call misdirection. To make an object seem to vanish, a magician directs the audience's attention away from where he hides it. Stories like the one about Cindy/Anna likewise misdirected, focussing public attention away from real and enduring struggles of women trying to care for their children in an uncaring world. The stories also directed journalists' and editors' attention away from issues that they found irksome, unpopular, or too ideologically fraught to cover. For tellers and hearers alike, alarming stories about invented or exaggerated dangers and social trends can keep fears of bona fide troubles at bay. When misdirection works, both the conjurer and the audience have participated in the deception. ACKNOWLEDGMENT Parts of this essay are derived from my book, The Culture of Fear (Glassner 1999). The main thesis of the paper does not appear in that work, however.


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