Feature Article

The terror of the headline

Reem Ezzeddine and Mohamad Afifi

May 21, 2021

Amina didn’t expect to get attacked by a fellow citizen on a bright Saturday morning. In fact, she left the apartment in the chirpiest of moods appreciating how the sun was a little kinder today and the streets were humming with satisfaction. Chloe, on the other hand, didn’t know that her fear of Muslims would get her as far as attacking a random woman on the street wearing a headscarf. In fact, she never thought that she had it in her to attack anyone at all. And yet although she was almost certain that the bomb that her brother died in last September was not instigated by a Muslim, her local TV outlets had made Muslim accusations so many times that she couldn’t rationally view them anymore.

Given that the media and media discourse are the global storytellers of today according to Marko (2013), a lot of our values and beliefs, our day to day decisions, our conflictions between wanting to choose a profession and wondering which moral implications we need to adhere to, are heavily shaped and influenced by the media. A lot of Chloe’s (and similarly-minded people’s) interactions with the world are based on ideas that the media has portrayed and emphasized. This makes the media a greatly valuable tool for the consolidation of power because people, populations, we can be moved and directed into particular paths that serve political and social change agendas. However, as is commonly known, some tools have a much greater expense on our freedom than others, and the creation of fear is one of the most dangerous.

Mass consumption of the media and its effects

The question is how and why is the media so effective at influencing mass opinion?

Coincidentally, and with the rapid and uncontrollable progression of technological advancements, nations, cultures, and societies are rapidly changing. According to how Linton in The Study of Man (1936) explains it, modern civilizations which are rapidly changing are heavily influenced by a rapid exchange and development of “Alternatives.” He explains that “Alternatives” are a category of cultural elements that are developed as alternative ways to do particular things in a society. We can look at “Alternatives” now as all the new and rapid ways that a society changes and develops.

And as a re-emphasis of Linton’s explanation, they have major input in how a society functions. Which means that the progress and development of a society, of course including its people, is largely affected and now dependent on the new and arising technologies and all the ways in which the media functions and exists.

But for coherence purposes, let’s define what we mean in this article when we say the media. The media, at least in how we use it here, is any form of discourse that is implemented in the field of mass communication used for the purpose of reporting news or global incidents happening, produced by media outlets.

Statistically speaking, there has been a mass consumption of media in 2020 alone, with an average of 90% of “weekly TV reach in the US,” an average of 223 million users of social networks in the US, a 93% ration of “radio use” reached, and 28.6 million newspaper readers daily in the US, according to Statista (2020).

Hence, due to its wide reach, the media has slowly become a political tool used in order to help promote both political agendas and induce social change. Any mass media outlet and conglomerate needing funding to operate properly, whether it be from the government of advertisers, funders tend to have an influence on the way that the media being released are shaped for their own economic or political reasons, resulting in news outlets and information having to conform to their sides of the story as famous media analyst Noam Chomsky (1988) explains it.

Consequently seeing as the media play a huge role on our internal attitudes, as seen in Berger’s study (2017), when the media are owned by a small number of establishments and media consolidation is created, the messages being sent are repeated as narrative techniques for reinforcement and have weighty implications on our thought processes, mainly shaping them. Therefore, due to the consolidation of media platforms, and the mass media being a source where all audiences rely on for news and information, media sources hold a lot of power, and have the potential to ensue mind control as Van Djik explained in his 1988 research.

According to an interview with Tala Zeidan, surveillance researcher and analyst and a digital communication officer with the Lebanese Ministry of Education, “The capacity for the media to impact individuals depends on the person’s association. There is no one way that every message can be interpreted, and each person perceives the particular messages differently.

“However, the most successful ones get close enough to influencing the masses by using methods of association towards something that most of your audience would already know, something that people can relate to. So, media conglomerates would ask themselves the following: What can people relate to the most and what would resonate with the target audience the most?”

In this case, and according to Chomsky (1988), the creation of a “common enemy” will come in handy and in order to do so, one of the most impactful tools used, is the instigation of fear.

Freedom and fear

We believe that we possess freedom to its full extent, constituted by the understanding that if we’re able to do whatever we want, unencumbered by external obstacles or others’ interventions, then we are free. But you and I are not free in the way that we think we are. That is only one side to the two-faced coin called freedom.

The type of freedom that we believe we have is called negative freedom. Which, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense.” Or in other words, negative freedom is a freedom that we have externally towards the world in a sense where no obstacles can stand in our way when we want to do something, such as there not being a police officer next to Chloe and Amina when Chloe decided to attack Amina, therefore there not being an external source that would prevent her from attacking.

However, there exists positive freedom too, one that is unfortunately not as obvious or as easy to achieve. Having positive freedom means having “the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.” In this sense, positive freedom means the ability to be the master one’s own actions, to have control over one’s mental attitudes and desires. Not having positive freedom in Chloe’s case, is thinking that what she really wants to do, is attack Amina in order to protect herself. In reality her wanting to attack Amina was instigated by the fear that the media instilled in her towards Muslims, thus making her opinion of Muslims be influenced by the media and not freely formed or created.

Even though nothing was preventing Chloe from attacking Amina (negative freedom), she wasn’t given the chance to interact with a Muslim and create a personal impression on her own and relied on the fearful instincts that the media instilled in her. So, in this specific case here, Chloe’s positive freedom was, for a lack of psychological terminology, partially taken away. This means that the extent to which we are actually free, is limited.

Javanbakht, in his article The politics of fear: How it manipulates us to tribalism, explains that due to the psychological nature of fear and it being a primal unconscious instinct, it bypasses logic; where logic is slow, fear is fast. Because fear is an emotion, it has the ability to suppress rational views and creates leeways to instill new ideas into people’s minds. According to Marko in Fear Control in Media Discourse, the Hobbesian type of fear is a permanent fear that exists in people as part of their nature, this type of fear can be used on people in an authoritarian state and would get them to go as far as giving up their freedom in order to have security. In order to reach the successful exercise of fear, one must be able to define and identify “what is the object of fear (whom or what to be scared of) and who is the subject (who has to feel fear), and who is the mediator (who controls the flow, degree and nature of fear in public space),” according to Marko.

On account of the media’s advancements being able to do all the former techniques publicly and reach masses, fear can be easily instilled. Leen Farhat, a clinical psychologist states in an interview that when the stimulus of fear is present, we react in any way to either reduce the fear or create safety for ourselves. She explained that we get into a “fight and flight response which is responsible to make us feel safe and it is an involuntary response.” She further explained that when we’re under a lot fear, our amygdala and hippocampus will be struck, and people seize to have the ability to differentiate between reality and what’s in their mind. “They don’t have rationale anymore. Their brain begins to take an instinctual reaction.” The hippocampus has a major role in learning and memory whereas the amygdala is the place where emotions are given meaning.

Causes and implications of fearmongering

Berger, in Marxist Analysis of Material Culture, explains that media giants care more about making a profit and serving their agendas than the interest of the people, and in order to do so, fear is the easiest mediated method. Fear is a way that politicians are able to sell themselves to the people in their homes and serve their own goals also according to Marko. In order to reach the successful exercise of fear, one must be able to define and identify “what is the object of fear (whom or what to be scared of) and who is the subject (who has to feel fear), and who is the mediator (who controls the flow, degree and nature of fear in public space)” Marko instates. On account of the media’s advancements being able to do all the former techniques publicly and reach masses, fear can be easily instilled.

Consequently, according to clinical psychologist Leen Farhat, the government are providing us with our basic needs, which means that our sense of safety is in their hands due to their hierarchal positioning. “A sense of safety is most important thing for the person. Take safety away from a person and their mental health directly decreases. Priority is safety and security.” She explains, expressing that “anyone who experiences fear from a higher power than he or she, has their brain shut down automatically inducing a stressful fight flight and freeze response, which affects their cognitive functioning. They’re forced to take an immediate decision and they have to do it because their safety is at risk.”

Psychological and communication techniques used

According to Gallois, the media have the ability to create something called ‘dread risk’ by paving the way for panic to take place even in situations of low probability danger; reactions that are brought out of it are usually irrational. As tribalism is also consequently a part of our emotional human nature and history, threatening one’s tribe with risks and dangers increases levels of fear and hate, Javanbakht explains, especially if the method is through otherization.

Consequently, according to Zeidan, the “most notorious infamous methods to instill fear” os propaganda. Zeidan believes that “the extent depends on the frequency of the message, and the way that the message is created including the target audience. Has been proven to play important roles in influencing and shaping minds.”

Surveillance, on the other hand, is one of the media’s most dangerous weapons. “If you know exactly what it is that these people are afraid of then you can target their exact fears and get them to do what you need to do. Surveillance means knowing exactly what your target audience fears, it’s easier for manipulation” Zeidan explains.

When looking at the linguistic, narrative and communicative techniques used in media discourse, one can easily identify the ways in which bias ideas and fear are being fed to the public. According to Ilikeshevna (2015) “the connotations of words and images are fragments of ideology that perform an unwitting service for the ruling elite.” Techniques such as intensification or downplaying events can be used in this regard.

Glassner (2014) identifies three main narrative techniques of fear mongering: Repetition, where the media repeat stories multiple times regardless and not taking into account the date of the event in order to magnify its weight in the minds of the public; “The depiction of isolated incidents as threats,” and he explains that if incidents of the same kind are happening in very different places over very different times, the media may show them as trends whereas the probabilities of it being a trend is very low; and finally, misdirection: where instead of the media pointing at there being for example, no gun laws in the country, they would point at how many teenagers possess guns, thus not only making it seem as if nothing can be changed, but also infusing panic in people.

“Politically or ethnically affiliated editorial policies, selection of terminology, portrayal and stereotypization, are the media techniques used for generating fear of the ‘others’ (Marko, 2013). In order to do the preceding, the media follow certain types of approaches, some identified by Johnson in his breakdown of Bias in News Sources (2016) as the following biases: Bias by selection and omission, headline, placement, word choice and tone, names and titles, and statistics and crowd counts.


Leen Farhat stresses that the reason that fear takes place in the first place, is due to a lack of awareness as to how to maintain a proper judgement and work towards understanding how things work. What’s really important is for a person that wants to take a decision is that they place themselves in a well-informed environment. “They need to have a safe space, and their safety should not be compromised. The person should take the decision based on their feelings, knowing consequences, problem solving skills and decision making skills are fully developed. They need to be aware enough to know that they can take accountability of their actions, and comprehend and understand the outcome of the decisions that they take.”

It is also necessary to look at the media ownership of everything people are reading in order to understand which angle the story is being told from and go forth and look at all the other angles of the story. It’d also do well for readers to check for repetitive headlines, dramatized words, and understand the full extent of the story before coming to conclusions.

Not everything the media says is fully truthful, and so for Chloe to go out next time and not feel the need to attack Amina, it would have done her well to look at news stories from Islamic perspectives and widen her understanding as to why her media places dangerous notions about Islam in her country.

Below is a multimedia video summarizing the recommendations that are most helpful in order to ensure mindful scrolling through the media.


•Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon.

•Ilikeshevna, I. G. (2015). Cognitive strategies of impact in media discourse. Austrian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 127–130. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/cognitive-strategies-of-impact-in-media-discourse

•Glassner, B. (2004). Narrative Techniques of Fear Mongering. Social Research, 71(4), 819–826.

•Johnson, M. (2016). Bias in News Sources. Media Smarts. Retrieved from https://mediasmarts.ca/lessonplan/bias-news-sources-lesson

•Javanbakht, A. (2019, July 27). The politics of fear: How it manipulates us to tribalism. Neuroscience News. https://neurosciencenews.com/politics-fear-tribalism-14592/

•Gallois, C. (2020). The language of fear? Australian media and the pandemic. APS. https://www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2020/June-July-Issue-3/The-language-of-fear-Australian-media-and-the-pand

•Berger, A. A. (2017). Marxist Analysis of Material Culture. Reading Matter, 63–72. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315128054-6

•Marko, D. (2013). Fear Control in Media Discourse. Southeastern Europe, 37(2), 200–219. https://doi.org/10.1163/18763332-03702005

•V, O., & T, L. (2020). Discourse of threat as a strategy of emotional persuasion and manipulation. Proceedings of INTCESS 2020, 912–918. https://www.ocerints.org/intcess20_e-publication/abstracts/a236.html

•Cambridge Dictionary. (2021, February 24). fear-mongering definition: 1. the action of intentionally trying to make people afraid of something when this is not necessary…. Learn more. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fearmongering

•Dijk, V. (1943). News as discourse. NEWS AS DISCOURSE, 1. http://www.discourses.org/OldBooks/Teun%20A%20van%20Dijk%20-%20News%20as%20Discourse.pdf

•Linton, R. (2021). The Study of Man [Student’s Edition] (Later Edition). Appleton Century Crofts.