What Is Media Panic?

Ray Hawk

Media panic is a reference to the innate resistance cultures have to adopting new forms of social interaction. It especially refers to religious and political authorities, or older generations of adults in a culture who are slower to adopt new methods of mass communication that the young embrace. The concept can be traced back in history to the beginning of the widespread dissemination of knowledge, such as with the invention of the printing press. Johann Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in 1440 and, by 1499, over 15,000,000 books had been printed, transforming the way in which society acquired and passed on knowledge. Popular books were criticized by the authorities of the time as vulgar poison in contrast to the publication of religious knowledge which they saw as an antidote to it.

Johan Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press.
Johan Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press.

More modern versions of communication that have led to media panic while transforming society, include newspapers and electronic avenues such as radio and television, telephones, and the Internet. The first newspaper published in Britain was the Weekly Newes of London in 1622, but it was heavily taxed by the government. Such practices reduced the economic justification for the proliferation of papers until the 1830s, when the "Penny Press” led to hundreds of them springing to life in America.

A media panic might be caused if a sensational story spreads through text messages.
A media panic might be caused if a sensational story spreads through text messages.

The telephone was invented in 1876, but did not begin to proliferate until phone technology and networks were refined for the average user in the early 1930s. Despite this arrival of a practical phone system, major social events that took place during 1939 to 1945, such as World War II, failed to make large scale use of the telephone. Governments in media panic still carried out the bulk of military communications by mail courier and telegraph.

As technology has improved the efficiency and distribution of methods of communication, social media has begun to transform culture at a much more rapid rate, causing a sense of media panic in broad segments of society that feel left behind. The widespread dissemination of radio and television programs in the late 1950s and early 1960s began to have a strong impact on societal values through controversial programming and advertising. Within 20 years, the presence of television sets in US homes rose from 1,000,000 to 44,000,000 by 1969. The number of TV stations also increased from 69 to 566 and advertising revenue paid to these stations by marketers went up from $58,000,000 US Dollars (USD) to $1,500,000,000 USD. Such strong growth fueled counterculture movements to 1950s traditional western values, and spurred social events such as nuclear disarmament and the peace movement, environmental cleanup, and a push for equal rights for women and minorities.

The arrival of the Internet and World Wide Web over the course of 30 years, from the early 1980s to 2011, has also created a sense of media panic, but this time it is focused on businesses as well. Many small businesses feel that they are missing a crucial opportunity to promote themselves if they are not actively engaged in Internet activity, from social networking sites to texting and blogging on a daily basis to potential customers and business partners. Even online computer games have become an approach to promoting one's business interests.

All media panic tends to be founded on two false premises. It promotes alarmism in the groups who resist adopting it, thinking that it has more power and influence than it really has. As well, it is prone to sensationalism by those who are eager to adopt it and share it with others. Media panic taps into an innate drive in human beings to be part of the group, while, at the same time, not wanting to be swept away by its rapidly changing social psychology. Social media can contribute greatly to a sense of unity and community among diverse populations, but it also has a tendency to erode values and the sense of identity people have of their unique place in the world.

A media panic might involve concerns over the sharing of photos.
A media panic might involve concerns over the sharing of photos.

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