Don't Panic!

Robert E Bartholomew and Hilary Evans. Panic Attack: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion. Sutton Publishing, 2004.

Bartholomew and Evans trace a history of media hoaxes and social panics starting with the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the New York Sun published the alleged discoveries of life on the Moon by Sir John Herschel, and which the authors see as the marking the start of modern sensational tabloid journalism. That story, though a sensation of the day, hardly constituted a panic, but many of the stories that succeeded them have. These included the claims that Halley’s comet would poison they Earth through the cyanogens in its tail, and the Martian Panic of 1938 and its imitators, through the Mattoon gasser, as well as the Satanic Abuse panic of the 1980s, through to modern terrorism scares and food panics such as BSE. There are also pieces on the misrepresentations of other cultures in the media, which though of interest do not seem to sit with the main theme of the book.

The authors seek to find reasons why people believe these scares, setting them in the social, cultural and political context of the times. For example the Mattoon Gasser story appeared at a time in which there was much concern about possible Nazi use of poison gas against the invading allied armies; or the dire international situation at the time of the great Martian panic.

There the new scares about obesity (licensing new forms of forms of approved prejudice) and a wide range of other health scares. The authors could also have included the great Alien Abduction panic, and noted how this is intimately connected with the sexual abuse panics. Indeed the abduction is now moving rapidly into the territory formerly occupied by witchcraft, with Hopkins and Jacobs’ claim that the socially maladjusted (the sort of people who were perhaps once one of the prime targets for witchcraft accusations) are transgenetic mutations under the control of the alien demons.

Though I am in general sympathy with many of the authors’ views, I have some reservations that there is perhaps an over simplistic view of the media as prime villain, rather than as reflector of social fears.

The section on witchcraft is very weak indeed, there is now a vast scholarly literature on this subject, none of which is quoted. Instead we get an ill informed sociologist’s claim that 500,000 were killed in the witchcraft panics, whereas the best current estimate is that the real figure was about a tenth of that, and the influence of Malleus Maleficarum is greatly exaggerated I suspect.

There are versions of some of the other copycat Martian Panics particularly from South America are taken from US press sources, and here the authors should perhaps heed their own strictures about racial stereotyping, for these stories fitted in too well to stereotypes of “excitable Latins” to be taken at face value without much further research.

The authors are also rather too uncritical of claims of post traumatic stress disorder, and even a suicide, caused by the badly acted and obviously fictitious Ghostwatch programme. Of course children can be scared by scary stories, my late mother remembered how she and my uncle were scared stiff by the silent movies’ equivalents of the video nasty such as Sorrows of Satan and The Man They Could Not Hang, to say nothing of her grandmother's traditional ghost stories. I can remember several sleepless nights caused by scary things including the ghost scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin but I would hardly call this PTSD. Of course when children become psychologically disturbed and even more so when they commit suicide, parents look for some scapegoat outside the family to blame, and there are sometimes publicity-minded coroners who will oblige. Almost invariably the real causes turn out to multiple, complex and deep seated.

I rather fear that their prescription of a political correct, neutered media giving ‘facts’ not opinion and spin (as if there are all that many uncontested facts to go round) suggests a remedy worse than the disease. What is really needed is making critical thinking part of the educational process, but that is not all that likely, as those with well developed crap detectors will soon start questioning. their teachers and bosses rather too much for their liking.   |PR|

1 comment:

Terry the Censor said...

Alien abduction needs to be studied as a mass panic, perhaps even as a form of hysteria (though I do think there are multiple paths to believing one is an abductee).
When abduction proponents insist their cases cannot be explained by well-known and long-studied psychological phenomena, they resemble intelligent design advocates who likewise deny natural processes.