“Mean world” beliefs and mass media

In an exclusive interview, Dr Paul Boxer of Rutgers University (link) talks about violence and mass media. In the context of the recent shooting at Fort Hood, USA, it makes for pertinent reading. Dr Boxer argues that media can be a powerful tool to propagate “mean world” attitudes.

a) Could you elaborate on the terms “mean world” and “just world” beliefs.

“MEAN WORLD BELIEFS” also have been termed “persecution beliefs” and refer generally to the belief akin to, “Others are out to get me.” The idea here is simply that the world is a mean place.

“Just world beliefs” involve the notion that the world is a just place — that is, that individuals ultimately are punished for their wrongs,  and/or that there exists a sort of fundamental fairness in human interaction.

b) What is the relationship of these two belief systems to audience and media and the discourse of media, terrorists, establishment, and human rights advocates?

WELL, THAT IS a pretty broad question. I think to some extent, the more violence one sees in the news media, the more one should tend to think that the world is a pretty mean place — This would not, however, disqualify the presence of just world beliefs if the conflicts depicted lead to some sort of just resolution. For example, if one sees a lot of news coverage of violent crime, one might believe that the general tendency in the population is towards criminal behavior. Yet, if such coverage is balanced by coverage of perpetrators being caught and punished for their actions, one also could come to believe that humans also are just. I’m not sure that answers your question, so perhaps a more specific follow up is warranted.

c) How could your research into audience identification with violent news media inform say the 3-day long coverage of the 26 Nov, 2008 attacks in Mumbai? The siege of the hotels was covered by Indian television media and there was considerable public anger as a result of that. Some of it led to demands that Pakistan be attacked. You comments and feedback.

I THINK SUCH INTENSIVE coverage of that kind of an event easily can lead to a sort of persistent, nagging belief — generalization — that anyone who is identified with the perpetrators is a bad person as well. This is exactly the sort of thing we saw in the US after the 9/11 attacks with respect to the treatment of the Arab-American population. The media coverage can easily reinforce any latent stereotypes already held, and help to generate new biases in thinking.

d) Do you think there is a case of shaping (or manipulation of) public opinion through media (either by terrorists or hardline establishment figures) to fit their aggression-oriented world view to solving many problems, for example Kashmir and Palestine.

I THINK THE HISTORY of political propaganda is pretty clear in that public opinion can be shaped by media messages. It is how one rallies a population to a cause, e.g., Nazi Germany. The new media – internet, texting, etc – make it a lot cheaper and easier for hard-line, fringe groups to get their messages across.

e) How do you nuance the argument that there is a causal relationship between media and violence or say sex.

WITH RESPECT TO MEDIA VIOLENCE AND REAL-LIFE VIOLENCE, this argument needs no nuance. The evidence from decades of experimental and longitudinal research is quite clear: Exposing individuals to violent media increases the likelihood that they will engage in aggressive behavior. The links are not so clear with respect to sex.

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