Altheide uses sociological theory, mass communications research and qualitative research methods.
He begins his research with a basic assumption that the most important thing that one person can know about another is what he or she takes for granted. What do people assume to be the order of things, the rock-bottom reality of how the world operates, the source of problems and likely threats? These are the basis for the mass media to build their presentation upon. It is the meaning of things that drives people to action or non-action and these meanings are derived from a communication process that involves symbols or languages and images. The mass media and popular culture are the sources of information for most people about events, which with they have had no direct experience. Many of the experiences we have with mass media provide a language and a perspective for viewing daily events. Our experiences of daily life are built from the input of mass media. The mass media provide the definition for the public’s understanding of fear and issues.
Symbolic meanings about safety, danger, and fear can lead to institutional change and even to war, as they have in Iraq. Atheide determined that these basic assumptions can be studied through the comparative study of mass media publications over a period of time. Traditional sociological analysis of the mass media would regard the media as a separate institution, and would regard the media as one functioning part of the other social institutions. Altheide argues that the media is the most important and influential part of other social institutions as they contribute to the definitions of situations in social life. Further, Atheide believes that social power is the capacity to define a situation for oneself and others. The symbolic interactionist approach to studying the media stresses social interaction and social context in understanding the social impact of new information technology.
Meanings are through a process of symbolic interaction between one another, just as the interaction that takes place in mass media. According to Altheide, the politics of fear relies on a compliant mass media, one that is willing to carry news reports and popular culture media that promotes fear. This is most effective when the message is part of a broader culture and is recognized by the audience. Atheide believes that today all social institutions are in fact media institutions.
In fact, the mass media has such an impact on our lives that public life takes on the “ frames” or interpretive perspectives offered by the mass media and especially the news. According to Altheide, news programming is one of the most powerful resources for public definitions today. It is through the media that society learns to view and interpret public events. The media uses “ problem frames” as a way to make news entertainment, and has consistently been used to promote the fear based politics of today, by using a strategy of “ this is what’s happening now” and applying it to an audience that makes it relevant. Brian Massumi reiterates this understanding in his essay.
Massumi believes that television had become the event medium. Through the use of the terror alert system, the government had immediate impact on the public. “ Government gained signal access to the nervous systems and somatic expressions of the populace in a way that allowed it to bypass the discursive mediations on which it traditionally depended and to regularly produce effects with a directness never before seen. Without proof, without persuasion, at the limit even without argument, government image production could trigger (re)action.” The terror alert system became part of the 24-7 onslaught of news events that gave society an immediate understanding of events that were taking place. Government provided the public with a heightened sense of fear based on the terror alert system and provided a series of events that would be based on that terror alert system. Altheide concludes that social change and expansion of social control occur through acts of power. When social control becomes institutionalized, it becomes part of our everyday life.
As formal social control efforts expand, so does the politics of fear. Politics of fear is based on policy maker decisions to promote social control through the use of danger, risk, and its relevance to their audience, as a means to achieve certain goals. Policy makers maintain this social control by making sure that threat to ones security is fairly constant. This fear is a social construction that is linked to cultural meanings by the mass media. Fear promotes more fear and limits our ability to challenge or question an increase in social control efforts, and provides the basis for an increasing level of social controls. Mass media promotes this fear based politics with its use of audience-relevant stories that make threatening events relevant to everyone, “ this may happen to you,” becomes part of the threat that maintains this fear.
This fear based control is evident in the war on terrorism, in the Iraq war, in the need to control our borders. Altheide is successful in making his point. He clearly demonstrates and ties the actions of mass media, to the overall increase of fear-based politics, and the changes that have occurred across our country as a result of that fear. Everyone can recall the icon on the bottom of the screen on CNN, indicating the level of our nation’s security, and that sick feeling that came with an increased level of security.
Many of the changes or levels of social control that have occurred based on fear-based politics have become staples in our society that we no longer question. Homeland Security was formed in order to keep our nation safe. President Bush has expanded his executive powers in illegal ways. He now has the power to tap our phone lines and open our mail, virtually without question or court order. President Bush maintained a high approval rating when he kept our focus on that security level icon.
As long as he maintained a level of fear within society, then society would believe that he and his administration had the ability to maintain the nation’s security. The Iraq war, and it’s place in the daily lives of Americans, kept the nation believing it was the right thing to do for a period of time. The embedding of journalists with the military in action clearly demonstrates the ability of the mass media to impact social institutions, and the ability to maintain social control. “ If we don’t fight them there, we will fight them here,” is a prime example of fear-based politics. This rhetoric, when applied liberally and driven home with increased social controls, keeps society following his lead. The Administration still maintains a certain level of control through the use of this power, and its constant application in the mass media. It was not until there was a questioning of the President’s power, that the media changed its tune and began to provide a different story, which has resulted in a change within the nation.
The security monitor is no longer a mainstay in our day. Once the media began questioning the Administration’s policies, society did too. The President’s approval rating has dropped. Support for the Iraq war has declined. All of this has happened as a direct result of the “ problem frames” that the media is presenting currently, and the manner in which they are making it relevant to our lives currently.
Fear-based politics is not a new method of social control, just as Altheide has stated. It has been utilized in different forms for as long as we can recall, and it will continue with different players and different messages. The change that has occurred is the media’s ability to bring it to us in a matter of seconds, and drive it home 24 hours a day.