The Culture of Fear

An Overview of the Book by Barry Glassner

The Culture of Fear was written in 1999 by Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. The book is all about why America is a country that is engrossed with fear. Glassner examines and exposes the people and organizations that manipulate Americans’ perceptions and profit from the resulting anxiety. The politicians, advocacy groups, and TV newsmagazines are “peddlers of fear,” according to Glassner, who weigh people down with needless worries and waste billions of dollars in the process.

According to Glassner, three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today than they did twenty years ago. He explores such questions as: Why do we have so many fears these days? Are we living in exceptionally dangerous times? What he uncovers is that it is our perception of danger than has increased, not our actual level of risk. There are people and organizations in America that actually profit from these fears and so they create them, but there are prices we pay for social panics, including money that is wasted on unnecessary programs and products as well as time and energy spent worrying about these fears.

Glassner blames the news media for a great deal of Americans’ fears. The media, he argues, bombards us with sensationalistic stories that are designed to increase ratings, a concept called the media-effects theory. Television news programs, for instance, survive on scares. Stories of crime, drugs, and disaster make up most of the newscasts because that is what gets people to tune in and watch.

As stories of crime and disaster increase, so do ratings. Similarly, television newsmagazines such as Dateline, Primetime, or 20/20 commonly report on stories that are statistically nearly impossible to happen, yet they sensationalize one account of an event, letting emotional accounts trump objective information, and getting the general public to panic and fear over the event or subject.

News outlets, whether on television or in print, typically exaggerate events and inflate statistics, according to Glassner, and that leads to many of the fears that overcome Americans’ lives.

Other “peddlers of fear” that Glassner discusses are politicians and advocacy groups. In essence, they over exaggerate and inflate statistics and stories to the American people so that their own personal causes and beliefs can benefit. For example, if a politician knows they can get more votes and win a re-election if they get funding for a program benefitting teen moms, he or she will inflate the problem of teenage pregnancy and instill fear in Americans over what would happen if such a program were refused funding. For instance, perhaps teenage pregnancy rates would skyrocket or teen moms on welfare would lose income and starve their children.

The Culture of Fear is filled with examples and accounts of when and how these “peddlers of fear” work and have caused fear among people in the past. Each chapter is devoted to a subject, such as teenage moms, black men, illnesses, and plane wrecks, and Glassner recounts example after example in each chapter. He then concludes with a very tiny discussion of what can be done about the problem.


Glassner, B. (1999). The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York, NY: Basic Books.