The difference between perception and reality all depends on the angle sold to you, and whether or not you buy into it. With no other means to see a world beyond how far one can travel, media is crucial to bringing the greater world closer to home. However, when media fails to do that job (or does it too well), what’s created is a world much more exaggerated and black-and-white than is truly the case. Until the world can be represented accurately and moderately, we must continually live in hyperbole. Here are ten instances of the media blowing things out of proportion:
10. The Royal Wedding
Few outside of the UK know what’s going on in the UK on a daily basis, but stop the presses when the Disney-esque ideal of a prince and princess eloping, in the most ostentatious of ceremonies, comes true. During the weekend that this media-friendly event was held, CNN paid undivided attention on William and Kate, not to mention all the crazy hats and jackets that came along for the ride. Anderson Cooper turned off his critical glances in favor of stupid grins and a gossip stew that all the female anchors ate up with great fervor. After all, every girl dreams of meeting their own personal Prince Charming. For a weekend, Anderson filled in.
Meanwhile, in other news, Osama Bin Laden was killed a few days later (which they reported upon ample source confirmation prior to Obama’s official address). How can CNN make a transition between a gap that wide? Well, they did. And that is why CNN remains the greatest, most ambivalent television news source around.
9. Super Bowl Scandals
It’s a new tradition: first, it was Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction (a kind euphemism for “her boob popped out of her weird outfit like it had a mind of its own”), this year it was the attention-hungry M.I.A. and her middle finger. Every other year it was just a bunch of mediocre, phoned-in performances from over-the-hill rockers (e.g. The Who, Stones, etc.). Why such outcry? Because the Super Bowl is one of the most viewed television events of the year, viewed by people of all ages, including a few conservative moms indulging their sports-crazed husbands. Meanwhile, Super Bowl ads are replete with sexual innuendo, beer ads, and crude humor of every variety.
8. Possible Carcinogens
Thanks to countless news stories hoisting cancer-causing agents with the slightest risk percentage into unavoidable public view, we live in a perpetual fear of the disease at every turn. Artificial sweeteners were accused of being carcinogenic. As were microwaves. And cell phones are being continually re-charged (so to speak) as possible sources of brain cancer. Most recently the World Health Organization released a list of items it concerned cancerous. And while nothing new was introduced (no new experiments or findings, just old information in need of official publication), new scares and hypochondriacs were created as a result of the added news coverage. As it turns out, repetition, at least on a subliminal level, can be heavily persuasive.
7. The Death of a Celebrity
Most recently, Davy Jones. Before that, Whitney Houston. Before THAT, Amy Winehouse. Unlimited unironic praise and humility is shoveled on the corpses of celebrities who were either washed-up or lived like deranged drug addicts, and were used as nothing but comedic material so long as they were still kicking. But once they finally kick the bucket, all heads are down and all snickering is muted for accusations of disgraceful or disrespectful conduct. Oh, how death results in so many 180 degree turns, lies we tell ourselves to pardon our previous selves.
Post-9/11, nobody kept a cool head, especially not those pulling the reigns at the major news outlets. This was because never had terrorism occurred so close to home, for media sources in particular. When select individuals within major cable and print news sources (and some politicians) were mailed envelopes containing traces of anthrax, they were not quiet about it. The result was outright fear of the post office and an unkillable leeriness about something as mundane as the daily mail. 22 documented infections and five deaths were the end result of those seven letters but, in the eye of the storm, it seemed like the post office was a veritable death-factory.
5. West Nile Virus
This disease is presented like some elusive serial killer in the news. In actuality, it’s a rather selective virus (more rampant amongst birds than anything else), where the most susceptible human individuals are the elderly and organ transplant recipients. Ninety percent of people, otherwise, wouldn’t even know they were infected.
4. H1N1 (Swine Flu)
Never before had the flu shot been as popular as the latest iPhone. In the immediate aftermath of the breakout, vaccine doses couldn’t be supplied enough to meet the unruly demand. Tales of a “fatal flu,” far worse than the drink-ginger-ale-and-lie-in-bed-all-day flu, was enough to scare every hypochondriac to death. Or at least into making the waiting line for the CVS Minute Clinic look like the line to get Dr. Oz’s autograph.
3. Charlie Sheen
Why was this man the center of American focus (and even Piers Morgan’s focus) for so long? Is it simply human nature to obsess over the meaningless, or do we just love to watch someone successful spiral downhill? Or is it both?
Whatever the reason, he was plastered all over every possible media outlet: his manic, oddball Twitter rants and paranoia-drenched vlogs were the source of several professionally-conducted interviews and a million memes and punchlines for talk show monologues (George Lopez would still be making Sheen jokes if his show hadn’t been cancelled…so pre-maturely). He was a national obsession and yet the source of almost zero sympathy. Recently, he’s confessed to having been in a weird place during all of Sheen-o-mania, and that he’s since reformed. But reformation is a very fleeting news story, so nobody really cared.
2. Tainted Cantaloupe
A strain of some kind of deadly bacteria called listeria monocytogenes was found in cantaloupe linked to a single farm. Twenty-plus deaths have been linked to the fruit, but any death is proven to be too much to risk a visit to your local fruit stand. Certainly the amount of cantaloupe consumed after reports of the outbreak must’ve decreased dramatically. And here we thought calling someone a fruit was to say they were harmless and dainty; in a new context, being called a fruit is the equivalent of calling someone a proven killing machine.
Sometimes news stories feel compelled to report on myths and superstitions. For instance, when the film 2012 was released, a news special (or maybe just Entertainment Tonight) felt the need to drench the movie in rumors and paranoia surrounding the Mayan calendar and Nostradamus predictions of the supposedly-approaching apocalypse. TV commercials, Facebook statuses, and other contributors to the cultural conversation only kept the pot continually stirred. With the wrong kind of information, a susceptible person might actually believe this is happening.