04th Apr 2012

Jerrycans and Hammers Misused: Two Tales of Media Influence

Like forest fires following a long dry summer, media messages can spread out of control if placed into the wrong hands - a rule that applies to senders as well as receivers.

Two recent examples in the UK context are noteworthy. First came last week’s debacle at the petrol pumps. Way before any strike by tanker drivers was due to be called, senior Government minister Francis Maude recommended that people store extra fuel in jerrycans in their garages. So if the media fire that fuelled the long queues at petrol stations up and down the country wasn’t enough of the usual public over-reaction to news that threatens one’s daily livelihood (threats that rarely materialise and render unjustifiable the crisis discourse doing the rounds on TV, social networks, etc.), on top of this came the extraordinary news that a woman in York, decanting fuel from a jerrycan next to a gas cooker in her kitchen, set herself alight and suffered life-threatening burns.

Of course, it may well be unfair to point the blame for an individual’s domestic accident at a combination of a politician’s careless advice and media-made panic about fuel shortages, but what political communication specialist Professor Stephen Coleman (interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live) called the tragic symbolism of this train of events will indeed stick long in the electorate’s memory. This is the sort of news that really does set people talking to each other, whether face-to-face or on Facebook - it could have been me, it could have been you – and the very fact of its immediacy to people’s everyday lives makes it more significant, politically, than critical reaction to foreign affairs, or fiscal policy, or other matters further from the rich tapestry of day-to-day experience.

A second example of media influence, though thankfully far less grounded in common humanity, was to be found on most of yesterday’s tabloid front pages. The Sun, for instance, headlined with: CORRIE COPYCAT, 14, MURDERED MUM WITH HAMMER: 16 YEARS FOR BOY WHO COPIED SOAP PLOT. The Mirror even used the word IMITATION in its headline to describe the malign influence of a well-known Coronation Street (TV soap/serial) character on the boy who, with no apparent motive, hammered his mother’s head to a pulp.

Media-inspired copycat murders are not a new phenomenon, of course, and very often it is children or young adults who are both perpetrators and victims of these crimes. They are extremely rare crimes thankfully, like murders generally, but such is their huge (and automatic) news value that false perceptions may be cultivated in people’s minds about their frequency. Gerbner’s cultivation theory approach (see Key Terms), applied to this rare but salient phenomenon, would no doubt produce some intriguing results.

Media effects and influences of different kinds, from everyday contexts like filling up on fuel to the extreme versions that end with murder, live on in the social imagination - proven by the fact that there’s always another example just round the corner…

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