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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Stereotyping the Post Office in the Media

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

At an important (but generally ignored) press conference recently, the United States Postal Service unveiled a report which tries to prove that the term "going postal" is incorrect. The 249-page, two year study was funded by the postal service, but conducted "independently" by the U.S. Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace. That's what they say.

In short, the report concludes that postal workers are no more or less crazy than the general population and no more or less prone to violence than the rest of us. ""Going postal" is a bad rap," said Commission Chairman Joe Califano, "causing unnecessary apprehension and fear among 900,000 postal workers."

Studying the cases of 29 post office-related homicides over the past 13 years, the report compared postal workers to taxi drivers and retail store clerks to prove that there's actually less chance of being killed as a postal worker than in other professions. The study bemoans the "sensationalism" of media reports on post office violence, pointing out that perhaps because the post office is a public building and is the second largest civilian employer in the country, there is more extensive press coverage of post office tragedies.

The study, of course, won't make the slightest bit of difference.

We don't pay attention to facts, figures, and statistics in this country; we pay attention to images - right or wrong.

"Going postal" has already entered our vocabulary, and trying to purge it from the minds of people is kind of like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. It can't be done.

It is, however, an interesting real-world illustration of the creation of a stereotype in a rather short period of time. Like all stereotypes, it's probably unfair. Like all stereotypes, it has traceable (and multiple) causes. And like many stereotypes, it's been perpetuated and spread through the media.

In 1986, an Oklahoma post office worker shot and killed 15 fellow employees in less than 10 minutes. In 1989, a postal worker killed his wife at home and then drove to the post office where he shot and killed two colleagues and himself. In both October and November of 1991, two fired postal workers returned to work to kill supervisors and co-workers. It happened twice more in 1993, and twice again in 1995. It's easy to see how the term "going postal" entered our lexicon.

It's even found its way into a number of dictionaries. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines "go postal" as "to become very angry, or to suddenly behave in a violent and angry way, especially in the place you work."

The stereotype has thus been created; the image is in our minds; the term has entered our language. No fancy study with statistics and facts and comparisons is going to get this toothpaste back into its tube.

It is as factually incorrect as any racial stereotype you can think of - Irishmen as drunks, Jews as stingy, Blacks as lazy. And as incorrect as other vocational stereotypes as well: teachers as inept, used car dealers as dishonest, lawyers as scum. In fact, we know that ANY stereotype is both incorrect and unfair on its face. You can't make judgments about whole races of people or professions.

But that doesn't stop us from doing it.

The postal report was supposed to "help dismiss stereotypes about postal employees," and in that respect, it failed. You can't dismiss a stereotype. You can prove it's not true, but you can't dismiss it.

Are we going to see press conferences from the American Society of Blondes next? Or from the National Polish Council trying to dismiss their stereotypes?

We live on images - real ones and mental ones. Sometimes the images are constructed, manipulated, highlighted, or downright unfair. But the fact that they do their job of communicating is proven by the fact that they're still around.

We've seen - just since 1986 - the birth and acceptance of a new, unfair image, a postal stereotype. Unfortunately, trying to prove that it's incorrect won't do any good. Our modern-day media may have spread, publicized, and hastened its growth, but they didn't create it.

Human beings have created (and used) stereotypes forever it seems. And the stereotypes never seem to go away - they just multiply. They exist both in media and in our own minds, which makes them both prevalent and indelible.

The post office will have to understand that this is one problem (like their stamps) that they just can't lick.