Scaring Witless

For the past month, the story of Carlie Brucia, the 11-year-old Sarasota girl who was snatched off the street and murdered, has dominated cable news. While Carlie's murder is tragic, the increased anxiety, almost hysteria, that Americans feel about their own children's safety is almost entirely a creation of mass media hype. If I were to ask how many American kids are kidnapped by strangers every year, what would you guess? A thousand? Three thousand? The answer for 1999 is 93, down from about 300-a-year during the 1980s. That's still too many, but the fact is kidnappings are rare. As Gregg Easterbrook points out in his book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, wearing dark clothing outside poses a far greater risk to your children than kidnappers. (It increases the chance that they get hit by an automobile.) Yet, judging by what our kids are wearing, parents aren't worried about this far greater threat to their kids. Why? The answer, Easterbrook tells us, lies in the role that mass media play in shaping Americans' perception of the world, that is, their worldview. News organizations have an "incentive to emphasize the negative." Sensational stories about crime, environmental threats, and possible natural disasters, often teased with the tagline "a report you can't afford to miss," attract viewers. The result is that "Western life is methodically made to sound perilous or precarious," when, in fact, the opposite is true. Take, for example, a page-one New York Times story alleging that the administration had "canceled" regulations limiting arsenic in drinking water. The paper then editorialized that the White House wanted Americans to "drink poison water." That would be bad if it were true. But there was no cancellation, merely a few months delay in implementing tougher new rules. And TV distorts reality even more. "In a world of six billion people," Easterbrook reminds us, "there will always be something burning, blowing up, or surrounded by officers with guns drawn." By continuously showing images of disaster and violence without a larger context, the media fosters what Easterbrook calls "headline-induced" anxiety. Television drama and the movies also "present a distortedly pessimistic view of American life." Onscreen, "disaster lurks around every corner." Every city has its own serial killer, even though such killers are very rare. We're on the brink of "ridiculous environmental calamities," such as the polar ice caps melting or a "preposterous mega-epidemic" that will wipe out 90 percent of the population. No wonder we're nervous. Fortunately, there are ways to counteract the effects of mass media. One is by more careful viewing habits. Never forget that both the news and Hollywood are trying to sell us something. We should regard their claims with healthy skepticism. Or, if we can't do that, unplug the TV. Another is to be as well informed as possible about the issues that confront us: crime, culture, the environment. In many instances, even a cursory knowledge of the facts is enough to protect us from "headline-induced anxiety." This is especially true for Christians who are told by our Lord, "Be not afraid." If this is the case when the threat is real, it is doubly so when it's imagined.
For Further Reading and Information
Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003). Call 1-877-322-5527 to order ($25). Steven Milloy, "Look at the source of the scary headlines," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 25 January 2004. John R. Lott, Jr., "Shocking Numbers, but Do They Add Up?" Wall Street Journal, 30 August 2001 (reprinted by American Enterprise Institute).


Chuck Colson



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