Mediated Meaning, Public Salience and Fear

A tale of two scenarios in recent days;

1. Writing in the New York Times last week, Nicholas Kristoff pointed up some obvious facts about the current hue and cry concerning the nation’s deficit, apparently not widely understood. First, it is not of President Barack Obama’s making. The President’s efforts to stimulate the economy have contributed marginally to the red ink, but the lion’s share has resulted from a decade of expenditure and tax policy choices along with a deep recession, of which Obama was hardly a primary architect. Nonetheless, Kristoff realized well that the Republican Party had successfully gained salience for an issue that had largely been ignored for the previous 8 years and which the Party fostered, and was proving increasingly successful in its partisan efforts to blame the President for it. Kristoff asked why an issue ignored for so long could suddenly gain such traction as to become a concern to millions. Apart from the hypocrisy of elected leaders who had dismissed the matter as irrelevant now arguing it was critical, Kristoff had no ready explanation for the new-found salience of the deficit issue. Nor could he offer a remedy for it other than suggesting the President “should push back” harder on his critics.

2. Toyota has recently had to recall several of its models owing to problems with their brakes or accelerator pedals. Some 19 people have died in accidents linked to the accelerator issue over the last 10 years. While any loss of life should be regarded as significant, the risk occasioning the Toyota recall should be placed into perspective. Upwards of 35,000 people die on this nation’s roads in auto accidents each year. Yet, the size of the recalls and the concern they have raised have been front-page national news for more than two weeks now.

            Among the possible partial explanations for the sudden success of a rather cynical partisan strategy and the enormous attention paid to an auto recall is fear. At a time when unemployment is at post-war highs, millions are out of work and the recovery is proceeding weakly, the public is restive about its future and concerned and fearful that worse might still obtain. In that context, it is far easier to fix their attention and cause them to worry about the deficit as a palpable and simple symbol of their economic frustrations and discontent. For the very same reason—that is, the public’s fear—media outlets will properly pay attention to the story. Salience begets salience and so a widespread perception spreads. Perhaps most noteworthy, the concern underpinning that fear need not be true or even relevant.

            The Toyota case too rests in part on fear. National media have reported the story because it involves the world’s leading automaker, renowned for its excellence, in an apparent stumble. And that turn has engendered fear among Toyota drivers beyond the risk the malfunctions pose. The fear manifested might not be rational, but it is no less real for that and it quickly has created a genuine concern that the manufacturer assume responsibility, as so many recent reports have put it, “to make this matter go away.”

            At their core, both concerns have been driven out of proportion, at least partly, by individuals making poorly reasoned judgments on the basis of inadequate information fueled by fear. It is far from clear how the nation can avoid either the cynical manipulation of information implied by the deficit scenario or the exaggerated fear bred by the recall. In each case, the population was reacting to situations that rightly raised concern, but that reaction far exceeded levels that, when contextualized, could reasonably be assigned to either event. The media has magnified that inclination, as outlets perceive that fear is significant to their readers, listeners or viewers and therefore newsworthy or salient. Each scenario raises searching concerns about the character and prudence of how collective understanding is now being constructed. And yet, as most public meaning is highly mediated today, it is difficult to see how these sorts of partisan manipulations and emotion-based reactions might be prevented in the future.