Thoughts of Death Lower Support For Watchdog Press

During times of mortal strife, some people want journalists to become lapdogs instead of watchdogs.

That's the conclusion of a study published by David Cuillier, a University of Arizona assistant professor of journalism, in the April issue of the scientific journal Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism.

Cuillier conducted an experiment to test how the thought of death affects people's attitudes toward journalists' right to challenge government authority. People who valued security became less supportive of a watchdog press when primed to think of death than people who valued security who weren't primed to think of death.

The results, Cuillier suggests, indicate one potential reason for why there may be opposition to journalists who criticize the president during times of war or the September 11 terrorist attacks. Some journalists and media commentators, such as Bill Maher, were fired for challenging the government.

"During those difficult times, people are more likely to cling to their cultural world views and look to leaders for support," Cuillier said. "Threats or challenges to those leaders, including journalists, might not be too popular."

The research was based on terror-management theory, which was conceived in the 1980s by psychologists – including UA Professor Jeff Greenberg – with the idea that humans developed defense mechanisms over time to deal with the concept of death. More than 300 studies have found that when people are primed to think about death, they cling more dearly to their world views, often becoming more religious, charitable and supportive of leaders, but also more hateful toward people they don't like.

Cuillier said that this can be a problem for journalists and the nation during times when questioning the government can be beneficial.

"If journalists and the public had more rigorously questioned the government's justifications for invading Iraq, perhaps we would have had more facts," Cuillier said. "Citizens – and their government – need to make informed decisions during times of strife. It can be helpful to challenge each other. That's the role of the press."

The experiment was conducted in 2005 with 171 undergraduate students at Washington State University, while Cuillier was earning his doctoral degree, with co-authors Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman. In a similar study, Cuillier found that the thought of death causes people to become more supportive of government secrecy. That study was published in the journal Open Government last year.

The take-away point, Cuillier said, is that when catastrophe or war occurs in the future, people should remind themselves of the importance of questioning government and the watchdog role of the press.

"We need, as a society, to make decisions based on reason, not on evolutionary psychological defense mechanisms. We have to rise above our caveman instincts and stay true to our democratic values."

The study: Cuillier, D., Duell, B., & Joireman, J. (2010). The mortality muzzle: The effect of death thoughts on attitudes toward national security and a watchdog press. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 11(2), 185-202.
By Kate Harrison, UA School of Journalism