Time to shift the message away from ‘madness’

Alarm takes hold the moment you click on a recent Time story about movie theater security. A large, fuzzy image of empty, dark red cinema seats serves as a backdrop for the headline: THEATER MADNESS. It’s a fitting nod to the 1936 pot-panic film Reefer Madness. Instead of marijuana, the Time story focuses on rare theater attacks—and metal detectors, security guards, and bag searches. It’s journalism, not propaganda, but writer Eliana Dockterman’s facts often work against her case, pushing this piece closer to fear-mongering than public service.

Make no mistake: the US needs to discuss cinema security. As Dockterman notes, three incidents since 2012 have left 16 dead, including three assailants, and more than 80 injured. Most of those casualties came at the hands of James Holmes, the shooter who this month was sentenced to life in prison without parole after opening fire during a 2012 showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado.

How the media presents these heinous crimes is important, though. The Time article hinges on the effects of “three attacks in as many years.” Barry Glassner, author of the best-selling book The Culture of Fear, says that wording like this makes infrequent tragedies appear more common. “By blowing small dangers out of proportion, it just increases this notion that we live in very dangerous times, when, in fact, Americans live in about the safest time and place in human history as far as we know,” Glassner says. With more than 5,700 cinemas, 40,000 screens, and billions of dollars in ticket sales in the US each year, the odds are low that anybody will fall victim to a theater massacre.

To its credit, the story acknowledges the scarcity of these attacks. But the writer holds back that information until the story’s last section, quickly following up with an argument-affirming quote from a forensic psychology professor who tells readers why film screenings attract violence. While interesting, that insight shouldn’t be used to validate concerns about movie theater security that aren’t supported by the numbers.

Toward the end of the article, Dockterman also writes that “audiences aren’t clamoring for change.” On the heels of a late July shooting at a movie theater in Louisiana, a survey found that the attack wouldn’t affect the movie habits of 85 percent of its 250 respondents. The study also mentions that just 13 percent would be willing to pay an extra $3 per ticket for security upgrades like metal detectors, a figure that climbed slightly after an attack by a hatchet-wielding man in Nashville this month. “Meanwhile, at least some of the millions with ticket stubs in their pockets are on alert,” Dockterman writes. But if most of the public doesn’t care, why should the reader?

Time did not respond to requests for comment. Despite the relative rarity of movie theater attacks, other publications have also been peddling this fear-first style of reporting. They point to a simmering debate about where to take the industry, though it seems news organizations are mainly responsible for turning up the heat. Major movie chains, for the most part, refuse to comment on the matter. Security experts claim theater operators are weighing their options. (Regal Cinemas did institute a bag-checking policy this week.) It’s not far off from the sensationalist reporting on the Ebola outbreak last year. Thankfully, the media eventually caught itself there.

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Movie theaters aren’t the last bastion of violence. Time’s reporting on evolving security measures is justified. But the message would have held greater power without the “madness.”

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha