Remember that time you watched the local news and left feeling the world was really getting better? What? Why not? Poverty is at its lowest point in two hundred years, homicides are down, since 1997, rates of rape have dropped by almost 50%. So then why do most Americans think the world is getting worse? George Gerber has a theory and it’s aptly “Mean World Syndrome.” I referenced this in an earlier post and thought now would be a good time to expand on the concept.
Before we get into Mean World Syndrome, let’s first discuss its parent theory, cultivation theory. Cultivation theory begins with the obvious assumption that people learn from watching or reading media. However, what we learn might not always be so obvious or clear cut. Cultivation theory focuses on the assumptions, incidental observations and beliefs that are cultivated as the result of sustained media consumption. Originally this work focused on television, but has now expanded to cover other formats like movies, novels or video games. Research has shown that viewers pick up assumptions on things like gender roles to junk food consumption.
Where this gets particularly interesting is when it shapes consumers perceptions violence. This is the center of Mean World Syndrome. The theory argues that as a result of frequently viewing television violence, audiences believe there are greater rates of violence in the world. Gerber says this is largely driven by a profit motive. If people watch the news and are reassured that the world is going alright, then they are less likely to tune in the next day. However, if the world is seen as over flowing with murderers and thieves, it would be imprudent for a consumer not to dial in and find out about all of the people murdered within a 500 mile radius. As for fictional television, violence is an exciting and engaging plot device. American consumers in particular love a good action flick where the bad guy is killed in the end and justice prevails. Unfortunately, at a subconscious level, this starts to effect our perceptions of real violence over time. The bias in the media production starts to cultivate a negative bias towards reality.
This is especially harmful when the violence is associated with certain racial or cultural characteristics. So not only do people start to worry about an overblown threat, but they simplify its source to be associated with certain groups. On that note, I write this blog to try and shed light on where this might be happening in US media either intentionally or unintentionally. Additionally, cultivation theory doesn’t have to be bad. You can cultivate positive, healthy and nuanced beliefs within an audience and some of the blog posts here have tried to highlight that. But when the overwhelming number of islamic centered news story discuss its terrorism or human rights, and movies only bring in Muslim character to play the role of a terrorist, we can see when things might go wrong. Hopefully, our media will continue to improve so we can stop this xenophobic backsliding thats happening in this country.