How Headlines Drive Our Fears
If you watch the news, you're probably afraid of being shot by another driver in a burst of road rage or of your children being gunned down in school. Why do we fear these dangers that are statistically improbable?
"Humans are programmed by nature to fear things that harm us, so our fright buttons can very easily be pushed," explains Richard Wessler, PhD, a professor of psychology at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY. He adds, "The media are largely responsible for pumping up big headlines and presenting the fear of the week."
Misperceptions of Youth Homicide
After the tragic school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, NBC's Today Show host Katie Couric declared that today's youth were "more likely to pull a gun than make a fist." US News & World Report then weighed in with a report about "Teenage Time Bombs" and "Children Without Souls." The New York Times opined that the shootings "were a disturbing trend."
After school shootings by teen boys in four separate states over two years, it appeared to TV news viewers that the average American youngster had become a Nazi storm trooper who liked to shoot up schools just for kicks. But nothing could be further from the truth. If those in the media checked, they would have found that the number of youths arrested for violent and property crimes fell to its lowest number in over forty years.
A Culture of Fear
"We live in a culture of fear," says Barry Glassner, PhD, University of Southern California professor of sociology and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. "The harm? We are continually distracted from serious problems by focusing on things that are extremely unlikely to happen."
According to Glassner's statistics, the more real dangers to teenagers include car accidents, suicide, binge drinking, and unprotected sex. He adds, "It's very unlikely the average teen will be shot at school. But that's what captures headlines." When all the news channels repeat scenes of one tragic shooting over and over, it looks like schools everywhere are under attack.
The Role of the Media
In reviewing police reports, scientific studies and skeptical media accounts over five years, Glassner found part of the blame for widespread false fear rests with the news media's penchant for crime stories. When a crime happens in any city, it is very likely to be the lead story on all the newscasts. But the truth is, between 1990 and 2005, the nation's murder rate declined 28.5%. Meanwhile, the number of murder stories on network news increased 600%, according to Glassner's calculations.
"You may not get the proper perspective from a TV station whose motto for selecting news is 'If it bleeds, it leads,'" Glassner says. "Consequently, Americans waste tens of billions of dollars yearly fighting minor or non-existent dangers." All the while, we neglect real problems—problems we could solve if we put our minds to them.
The Real Problems
The following pairs of topics have been reported to varying degrees in the news media. Which ones are statistically more common occurrences?
Road Rage or Drunken Driving?
Virtually every American knows about road rage—the result of a motorist with a short fuse losing his temper and gunning down another driver. But in proportion to the total number of drivers, it rarely happens. Much more dangerous are drunken drivers who kill far more people than those who are outraged because they were "cut off" in traffic.
Workplace Shootings or Unsafe Work Conditions?
Reports of workplace shootings overshadow the real job hazard—unsafe work conditions. These result in over 50,000 deaths annually and almost seven million injuries.
Airbag Safety or Seatbelt Compliance?
A Michigan paper recently ran a story with a headline that read, "Man ejected from truck by air bag." Obviously absurd, because an airbag cannot eject a person from a vehicle. The driver of the truck was almost certainly ejected because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt and his door came open in the crash—two events totally unrelated to the airbag and not reported in the story.
While there have been instances of infants, children, and adults being fatally injured by airbags, what has not been reported is that most of these fatally injured people were unbelted, improperly belted, or out-of-position. Because media coverage focuses on the airbag, unreasonable fears of airbags have arisen.
Teen Mothers or Poverty and Lack of Educational Opportunity?
Teen mothers have been widely criticized nationwide by politicians and social experts alike. But few media reports tell you that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, "the teenage pregnancy rate in this country is at its lowest level in 30 years…"
"Teen mothers are victims of the most sweeping, bipartisan, multimedia, multidisciplinary scape-goating operation of the late twentieth century," says Glassner. "The greater societal problem is poverty and a lack of educational opportunity, not motherhood." Nonetheless, many politicians made gains in the polls by taking a loud and visible stance against teen pregnancy—whether it was a large scale problem or not.
Cyberstalking or Domestic Sexual Abuse?
Afraid that your child may be sexually molested by an Internet cybercreep who is silently stalking him or her? It rarely happens, yet always makes huge headlines and urgent television news bites. In reality, the day-to-day "sex" danger for most children comes from sexual abuse at the hands of relatives in their own (or a neighbor's) home.
Breast Cancer or Heart Disease?
Many postmenopausal women have rejected the use of estrogen replacement therapy, which, aside from decreasing the symptoms of menopause, may reduce the incidence of heart disease and osteoporosis. Their reason? Fear of breast cancer.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more women die of cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) than all of the cancers combined. So for women without a history of breast cancer, the benefits of estrogen replacement with relationship to heart disease far outweigh its risk as a promoter of breast cancer. Unfortunately, this perspective is seldom emphasized by the media.
How to cope? Glassner suggests learning to ask questions and remaining skeptical about the front page news. Read or watch all the way to the end of the news report, where the most pertinent information is often found. Read for context. Who does this issue affect? How many people are really involved?
When you find yourself too upset by the news, realize that by often portraying the facts as more dangerous than they really are, the media can scare you to death. Don't let frightening images and harsh words create irrational fears in your mind.
The American Council on Health and Science
Mental Health America
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Canadian Psychiatric Association
The American Council on Health and Science website. Available at: http://www.acsh.org.
Heart disease. Women's Health website. Available at: http://www.4woman.gov/faq/heartdis.htm. Accessed April 7, 2008.
United States Crime Rates 1960-2006. Available at: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm. Accessed April 7, 2008.
US teenage pregnancy statistics national and state trends and trends by race and ethnicity. Guttmacher Institute website. Available at: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/2006/09/12/USTPstats.pdf. Accessed April 7, 2008.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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