Why Scaring People Doesn't Get Them To Care About An Issue
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Politics and Activism

Take The Shock And Awe Out Of Your Awareness PSAs If You Want Anyone To Actually Listen

Scaring people into taking issues seriously isn't the best way to raise awareness.

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Take The Shock And Awe Out Of Your Awareness PSAs If You Want Anyone To Actually Listen

Hate crimes. Mass shootings. Suicides. Storms are growing more powerful.

If you watch the news, you'll soon determine the world is coming to an end. Few would argue that the ostrich solution works. But when it comes to raising awareness, how the news addresses issues matters as much as what they report. We need to stop relying on fear to raise awareness and shift our focus to positive action if we want to effect real change.

The danger of desensitization

Personal safety expert Gavin de Becker uses the word "news" as an acronym for "nothing educational or worth seeing." He criticizes the media for raising awareness through fear — but providing little, if any, practical advice on how to cope with this anxiety. He takes an equally harsh stance toward worry, reinforcing the message in his books over and over that whatever you're worried about? It's not happening right now. And focusing on your worry blinds you to the very real dangers you may encounter.

Indeed, sensational stories of disasters may cause more problems rather than raise awareness. When you live on a steady diet of death and destruction daily, you grow desensitized to actual danger — meaning if you do find yourself in a natural disaster or active-shooter situation, you react with panic, not the cool head you need to survive.

And human beings surround themselves with more sources of paranoia than ever. While previous research revealed those who watch TV frequently experience more fear, recent studies reveal social media use likewise increases feelings of anxiety. Considering how many people turn to Facebook or Instagram for entertainment when doing anything from wasting time at work to standing in line in the grocery store, and you can imagine the desensitizing effect of this constant exposure.

On a mass scale, this desensitization impedes progress. For example, consider the backlash against youth climate activist Greta Thunberg. Some older, conservative men find her message that we need to save the planet or else (after all, we only have one earth) so threatening to their comfortable way of life, they double-down on their insistence human activity doesn't cause climate change. And for better or worse, many of these men hold positions of power. Their decisions impact thousands, if not millions, of people.

Nor does raising awareness through fear work. As of the beginning of September, there have been moremass shootings than days in the year in the U.S. The media covers every story, interviewing survivors and theorizing about the influence of violent video games. In the wake of the carnage, legislators still haven't taken action on gun control. They stubbornly refuse to extend health care coverage, including mental health coverage, to all Americans as a right. Meanwhile, the shootings continue, and all the coverage in the world hasn't stopped it.

We need to focus on action, not awareness

If awareness campaigns bring little change, what should the media focus upon? To effect meaningful change, they need to target their audience and provide action steps people can take.

"But," you might think, "news outlets already target their audience." And they indeed do with the interest of improving ratings. After all, in a capitalistic society, ongoing viability means bringing in the big bucks.

However, slight tweaks to current messages can go far. They can serve a dual purpose of raising ratings while creating true awareness — including what they can do.

For example, in the immediate wake of a mass shooting, people want to know the four Ws. However, they also want to know how to protect themselves and their children. Mass shootings scare people because they seem random and unpredictable.

If you look at the behavior of mass shooters, they give many clues before perpetrating their act. Media conspiracy theorists love to toss out ridiculous theories about violent video games while ignoring the fact many mass shooters have had a history of domestic violence as a pre-incident indicator. If we want to stop mass shootings, we need to keep guns out of the hands of those who beat their partners, not necessarily those who enjoy playing "Grand Theft Auto" to relax.

Imagine if the media took this sensible tactic. What if they ran headlines like, "Yet another domestic abuser terrorizes and murders," instead of, "tragic mass shooting — what's behind the violence?" And what if they followed those headlines with information on where victims of violence could find help? Where they could anonymously report the behavior of their intimate partners to authorities without fear of retaliation?

Or consider climate change. Activists use the very valid fact that we only have one planet to assert their point. And while they're correct, these assertions make corporate bigwigs and political leaders dig their oppositional heels in further.

Instead, activists can focus on the various benefits of moving to renewable energy resources and planting more trees. Thunberg does this beautifully in her message. In her recent visit to Congress, she included the job growth potential inherent in switching to green energy. This speaks directly to those in power who think, "Well, saving the planet for future generations is nice and all, but how do I still make my money?"

Awareness isn't enough — we need action

All the awareness in the world won't fix the problems facing society. Only action can do this. When media outlets switch from shock and awe to airing messages of what people can do to effect change, it empowers people to make meaningful choices that lead to a better world for all.

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