Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why is walking home at night so terrifying?

So it's two in the morning and I have just left Kip's bar, which by the way, such a great vibe they got going on there... Anyway, I need to get back to my apartment all the way on Northside. What do I do? I could call a cab, but I'm in college and poor and don't actually know the number for the cab company. I could call BearWalk, but by the time they get there it will probably be in two in the afternoon. So me in my liquid courage state decides to walk home. Now I have made this trek (not always from Kip's mind you) quite a few times, but that does not mean I am any less cautious about it. But why am I nervous about walking home in the first place? The only difference is the time of day. Well, this may be due to Gerbner's idea about cultivation analysis. He believes that the media, television in particular, have this power of creating a culture of fear in society due to its excessive depictions of violence. It's this idea that since we see violence in the media all the time, it makes people feel more wary, vulnerable, and afraid of the world, thus cultivating this sense that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

I walked through People's Park at midnight so yeah, I am feeling lucky.
Now the fear of walking home at two in the morning does have some merit due to the lack of eyewitnesses anywhere. But how about something less terrifying compared to something really terrifying, like asthma and sharks. More people die each day from asthma than they do each year from sharks (9/day vs 5/year). Yet, I guarantee you most people are not terrified when they hear that someone has asthma. For one, it does not make for a great news story, but a shark attack, now there's some drama. This leads to the popular misconception that shark attacks are more common than asthma deaths, partly because it gets more airtime. This is what Gerbner is getting at, the idea that the media cultivate a culture of fear through their dedication to  highlighting violence. We think shark attacks are more common because they are violent and the media likes to focus on them more.
I do acknowledge that it is possible that the media may have this effect on societies attitudes towards the world. I am less convinced of it causing any meaningful effect on our behavior (and that is the gold prize of social research after all). Gerbner seems to suggest that people who are fearful are more susceptible to those who offer stability, regardless if their means are atrocious (Japanese internment just one example of fearful acquiescence gone wrong). But could the media have that powerful an effect? I would argue the susceptibility is related more to the salience of the fear. Large problems like the fear of a war at home could rally people into blind submission more effectively than the media can. At best it is a contributory factor, but then again how would we know about salient problems without the media? I mean how else would I know that cutting through campus is probably more dangerous than sticking to the main roads?


  1. Chris, I hope this was a thought experiment and that you were not actually composing this post while walking home in the dark! I would be interested to compare your perceptions/experience with those of female members of the class. And I like your asthma v. shark attack example... it's a bit like the skewed comparison between automobile accidents and airplane accidents, and it ties into a discussion of what exactly "violence" is... what about the "slow violence" of environmental destruction, for instance?

  2. This post reminds me of something may be interesting to share.
    When I was in high school, my father once asked me if I would like to go to college in US. I said: No!I don't want to be shot dead in campus! Though it may sound ridiculous, I was really scared at that time by those school shooting crime news.
    But now I'm here, still alive, and enjoying. But when I first came to Cal two months ago, I made a silly mistake. For there were no classes in the first two weeks and I didn't have much things to do, I chose to stay at home and watched "Criminal Minds". As you can imagine, in the first couple of days, I even didn't dare to go out alone, not to mention at night. Then I realized I was doing something really stupid, so I stopped watching the TV series, and now I dare to walk alone at night, though still a little terrified.
    I guess these two personal experiences of mine can well support Gerbner's idea, though they were really ridiculous when looking back.