Ask the Psychologist Issue #7: How The Media Creates Victims In Our Society

I have been asked the question; Does the media teach people destructive behavior?

 In 1985, I started to write a book (Which I now intend to finish) after observing first hand how the media creates victims in our society.

At the time, I was attending a murder trial of a sibling, that I won’t get into detail about now, but saw first hand then how the media glorified criminals.

When the local newspaper, which was in a different state from the trial, asked my family if we would be willing to be interviewed, I asked the question; who would the story be about? I was told it would be about the criminal’s background and relationship with our family. I refused the interview and stated, if they wanted an interview about the victim of the crime, we would be willing to talk with them.

 The following Sunday’s supplemental magazine had a full front-page picture of the criminal, with a small postage size stamp picture of the victim at the very bottom. It was then that I realized that the media glorified criminal behavior to sell newspapers and make as much money as possible (Very much like **William Randolph Hurst demonstrated in the early days of newspaper publishing) .

When the story was initially presented in the community newspaper, the local small town residents had the insight to see what was so obviously happening and many cancelled their local newspaper subscriptions. The newspaper re-contacted me and because of the community reaction, asked me if I would write a story about the victim of the crime. I proceeded to write a three-day series about our sibling and the person she was to her family and community. It was then that I also realized that the media was primarily interested in making money and not concerned how destructive their stories can be to people in general.

 I started to do some research after this experience and one of my many findings revealed what the general values of people, who were in various aspects of the media were at that time.

In the 1970s  when Values Clarification was in Vogue, I reviewed a study, where a researcher surveyed the values of people in all aspects of the media. What was discovered was that producers, writers, editors, etc., had quite different values than the general population? At the time, the study showed only about 7% of them had any religious values, 9% believed that a person should be married one time, etc., etc. The end result of the survey revealed that, not only did people in the media have quite contrasting values than the general population, but felt their responsibility was to impose their values on the rest of society.

 In the 1980s  another study published in US Today revealed that the media was moving the work of the media in the direction of the values they expressed in the 70’s. Examples i.e. TV shows like Ozzie and Herriot and Father Knows best became three’s company, Modern Family, etc.etc. From news reporters who write the facts of a story to ones that practice *Yellow Journalism to sell papers. The saying, never let the truth get in the way of a good story has never been so prevalent as it is today.

Over the years, I have seen the general goals of people in the media, which they have had over the years, come to fruition in movies, television, newspaper articles and now social media. Its up to every day people, like the ones I described in the small eastern town above, to decide and choose to state if they desire, enough is enough and express their own values with the money they refuse to spend on distorted and hurtful media.

 So what is Yellow Journalism ?

*Yellow journalism was and is a style of newspaper reporting, as well as television, that emphasizes sensationalism over facts.

A classic example was during its heyday in the late 19th century, it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba.

 **William Randolph Hearst owned a newspaper that played a huge part in arousing the public’s intention to go to war with Spain. This activity reached its zenith after several years of articles concerning the situation in Cuba, Hearst ran a series of articles blaming the Spanish for the sinking of the MAINE with a mine. Many people in the United States blamed Spain In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

 The Spanish-American War is often referred to as the first “media war.” During the 1890s, journalism that sensationalized—and sometimes even manufactured (As occurs often today)—dramatic events was a powerful force that helped propel the United States into war with Spain, resulting in many people becoming victims of the media.

 As a result of false media at the time, the relationship between Spain and the U.S. became so strained, they could no longer discuss the situation. By April 21,1898, the Spanish-American War had begun resulting in two major countries being victimized by the media.

 So the answer to the main question above is YES, the media can influence and teach human behavior.

 One of my most vivid experiences of this is when I interviewed gang members who participated in a drive by shooting, telling me that even though they were not identified in a newspaper article describing the shooting, they carried the article in their wallet to show their friends what they did. Words in the article i.e., they were cunning and eluded the police glorified their acts. If words describing their criminal behavior i.e., they were like snakes and crawled into their hole and will be eventually dough out was used, it is doubtful they would carry this article in their wallet.

 It’s also not unusual for mentally disturbed people that become mass shooters, wanting the notoriety they learned other shooter have received from the media, which the media shows constantly for days, their crime and face on TV and newspapers, resulting in the criminal wanting their similar 15 minutes  of glory (Actually days and weeks), even if they are killed at the end of the story.

  **William Randolph Hearst, (born April 29, 1863, San Francisco, California, U.S.—died August 14, 1951, Beverly Hills, California), American newspaper publisher who built up the nation’s largest newspaper chain and whose methods profoundly influenced American journalism. The Hearst family is the 23rd wealthiest family in the world with a combined $24.5 billion net worth.


Bart P. Billings,Ph.D.
COL SCNG-SC, Military Medical Directorate (Ret.)
Licensed Clinical Psychologist CA PSY 7656
Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist CA LMFT 4888

—Director/Founder International Military & Civilian Combat Stress Conference
—Initial Enlisted Ranks and Retired as Medical Service Corps Officer with a total of 34 years in US Army
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