Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where's the Counterpoint?

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the dangers of social networking websites like MySpace and others can create for our children. Such stories often star shady abductors misspelling words and carefully luring children into their web each night, preying on their naivety and innocence. However, as one might expect if one looked at any national or state statistics, abductions have not risen dramatically since the rise of these websites. Nothing terribly significant has occurred since then.

As I watch the one-sided news coverage I find myself asking a question, why aren't their any voices present in the mass media countering this argument? It seems like every good point should have a counterpoint like every story should have (at least) two sides. However, on this issue, the voice of reason seems to be especially lacking in popular media.

It's not lacking elsewhere however. Adam Thierer at The Technology Liberation Front has a new study out, and his most recent post on the subject contains the following counterpoint among others:

A final myth about social networking that I discuss in my paper is that teens are at a much greater risk in these online communities than they were in the offline social communities of the past. It’s clear that part of what is driving the push to regulate social networking sites is that many adults simply don’t understand this new technology and have created a sort of “moral panic” around it. But parents misunderstanding teens—or a new trend or technology that teens love—is really nothing new. For example, today’s grandparents will recall that when they were teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s, their parents worried about their hanging out at burger joints and roller rinks. And today’s parents will remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, their parents were concerned about their hanging around shopping malls and video arcades. Those places were the social networking sites of their eras. And so it continues with the networking sites that today’s youngsters enjoy: digital, interactive websites.

It's an argument that eloquently and politely debunks the hysteria surrounding social networking sites. Hearing it's reason makes me wonder twice as hard as to why this sort of thing isn't heard from the popular media on the heels of each scare story.

If the goal of the news networks is to scare people, I can understand it's absence. However, I think the point Thierer raises here is both simple and engaging. It gets people to think about times from their past (most likely positive ones) and settles their minds a little bit about the future. Thus his argument should have an appeal to most Americans, qualifying it as mainstream material.

Yet it's absence persists. So why isn't it on the nightly news next to the scare stories? Is it too hopeful for society to be more stable than we thought? Is it too complacent with criminals we should obviously find evil and detestable? Is it too reasonable to ask the public to use its intellect instead of its base emotional response?

I don't know the answer, but having taken no journalism or media courses, it's interesting to try and guess from an economic standpoint exactly what influences demand to reach this equilibrium. Does the public desire to be scared and nothing else? Are the network executives keeping the scare stories unchallenged for a reason? Is there greater profit in scaring America rather than informing America? Is there another influence I don't see?

Granted there is challenge to the mainstream ideas in a few public arenas, like some blogs and the handful of debate shows on television, and while I believe those sources are vital to the public discourse, I think their influence simply isn't enough to balance out the presentation in the mass media. So I look to the Nightly News and ask myself again...

Where's the counterpoint?

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