Reaching for the Apocalypse

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

The most intriguing, and hard to pin down, questions I've gotten from readers over the past few days have revolved around overblown crises, fear, and why news organizations (and the public) seem to <3 both those things. People cite SARS and the 2006 bird flu publicity blitz, and wonder why the media is so quick to turn into Marvin the Paranoid Android, jumping in every five seconds with, "So this is it, we're all going to die."

First off, it seems pretty clear to me that this phenomenon does happen. While there are some things the media gets unfairly beaten up over, this isn't one of them. As Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication and former editor of the Miami Herald told the Washington Post this week,

We [meaning the media] have a tendency to reach for the apocalyptic, but the apocalypse hasn't reached us yet."

Obviously, some of this has to do with the format of a modern 24-hour, non-stop news cycle. Unlike 30 years ago, when your news came in fits and spurts, it's now expected to be a continuous stream. But more information doesn't necessarily come along to fill that increased news hole.
If you're CNN, you've long ago committed yourself to the stream. It's a little late for Wolf Blitzer to glance down at his watch, shrug his shoulders, and say, "So that's all we know for today, folks. See ya in the morning." I think that the unconscious pressures served up by that dilemma have been the cause of EXTREME!News (WOOOooo! Rock n' Roll!) at least as often as any temple-fingered, evil-y cackling, calculated push for ratings.

But I've always thought this wasn't just a media thing. The feedback loop of positive ratings that tells CNN to keep freaking you the frack out isn't based only on them manipulating you into being captivated. As any fan of zombies can tell you, average people are going around offering a hand to the apocalypse at least as often as their heavily made-up TV news counterparts. So what gives? Why are we so fascinated with (and almost damn-near excited by) the prospect of civilization collapsing any....minute...now?

For a good theory on that, I naturally had to turn to America's #1 Most Trusted News Source...and Philip Alcabes, a man who is surely feeling a strange mix of guilt and elation over the oddly fortuitous timing of his new book, Dread

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Philip Alcabes
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I'm interested in y'all's thoughts on this.

For the record: I do not think swine, excuse me, H1N1 flu is just a toothless scare. This really is a virus with pandemic potential and, as has been said, you should be concerned...but not freaked out. I don't think there's a lot of point in "what ifing" this into the death of civilization.