Maybe you spend all day checking the updates on your phone, but six in 10 Americans still prefer getting their live updates from TV news. Televisions are everywhere—in diners, gyms, laundromats. And wherever they are, newscasters disseminate the latest tragedies, little by little, convincing their viewers the world is falling apart.
Michael Amato explores this inescapable hold the media has on American life in Fear Culture, USA. His carefully staged photographs depict TVs glowing from corners in living rooms, gas stations, and other everyday environments. Sensationalist news stories beam from the screens, charging these otherwise untroubled scenes with a sense of doom. “Cable news projects fear into everyday environments,” Amato says, “and it can be very overwhelming.”
Americans enjoy a lot of safety compared to other people throughout history, but that’s not the message delivered by the nightly news. For years networks have followed the well-worn motto ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ and they attract audiences with shocking stories and rehash them until the next big thing breaks. A dearth of context and perspective only feeds the hysteria. “Cable news networks play directly to their audiences’ fears,” says Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. “Fox News reinforces its viewers’ fears of liberal policies and liberal politicians, MSNBC does the reverse, and CNN features panels of pundits fear-mongering to both sides.”
Amato doesn’t scare easy, but three years ago, he was terrified of Ebola. News reports updated viewers on every detail about the virus, from the number of gloves nurses must wear to the nationality of those infected. It got him thinking about fear culture and TV news’ role in propagating it. “It felt like Ebola was coming to get us,” Amato says. “There were a handful of people infected with Ebola in our country, but the media reaction made it feel like the threat was much greater than it was to the average American citizen.”
That experience eventually led to Fear Culture, USA. In February, he began photographing TVs in interior spaces across the northeastern US. Though they were often already switched to the news, Amato hooked up his laptop to play particularly pertinent cable broadcasts about terrorism, immigration, and disease outbreaks. One raised the possibility terrorists might be posing as refugees. Another warned of a SARS-like virus that could spread from bats to humans. Sometimes he also photographed the broadcasts separately and spliced them onto the screens in Photoshop.
At first glance, the scenes look ordinary, even banal. But they grow more unsettling the longer you look, revealing just how pervasive the news onslaught really is. “Fear culture is very much something that is all around us,” Amato says. “We experience it every day, even if we don’t notice it.”