That is, the constant, and too often unfiltered and unreliable, reporting of news, information, trends, and events means that we are too afraid of the wrong things. Fear of calamity, disaster, terrorist attacks, crime, disease, and accidents increase disproportionately to reality. Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things shows how the improper use of statistics, poor research, irresponsible journalism, alarmist reporting, and politically driven fear mongering have caused Americans to overreact about the wrong things. Although the context of some of his examples and explanations are dated, his analysis of the culture of fear and its causes and effects is right on. Moreover, what he says is even more the reality in 2012 with the increased influence of the internet. Consider that a survey of parents found that, when it comes to their children, they worry most about:
2) School snipers
4) Dangerous strangers
All these fears are based on real incidences (in particular drugs), and are among the most spectacular events reported in the media. Compare parents’ worries, however, with what actually kills or hurts kids the most:
1) Car accidents
2) Homicide (2/3 of the time by a parent)
3) Abuse (more than 2/3 of the time by a parent)
What gets reported? What is the most spectacular and fear inducing – drowning in a backyard swimming pool or the very rare instance of a school shooting?
What is going on? Why do we fear the “wrong things”? The bottom line is that we panic when: we have incorrect and out of context information, when that event being reported is new to us, when the event is spectacularly disastrous, and when it is over reported. Some examples to illustrate these four points:
**Incorrect and out of context information. The old saying is that “statistics don’t lie, but the people who use statistics do.” All too often statistics and studies are trotted out to prove a point. Unfortunately, “a new study has shown” does not mean that anything has been definitively proven. Researchers know that, especially for first time studies. They will usually draw tentative conclusions at the end of their report and qualify all of it by saying something like “further research is needed.” The breaking news we hear, however, is that a “new study has shown” this or that result, it gets reported it over and over as a new fact, and we start to worry. Is coffee good for you or not? Is chocolate good for you or not? Is this particular medical procedure necessary or more harmful? Is crime up or down? Is it fat grams, calories, or carbs?
Some incorrect information sticks around for so long that it becomes urban legend. A common belief, held by every responsible parent, is that there are sadistic people who put razor blades and needles in Halloween treats. The parental modus operandi now is to reject apples (no one gives them anymore), and homemade or unwrapped treats, as these may have harmful objects. Furthermore, when the child comes home, all the candy should be inspected. This is based on the “real” incidences way back in the late 60s and early 70s when children were harmed by razor blades and needles. The reality is, as Glassner (and others) point out, this myth was exposed by a sociologist who studied “every reported incident since 1958.” The conclusion? There was never a single death or serious injury reported, and only a couple of incidents of minor cuts resulting from “young pranksters” and not evil adults. The two actual cases of child death resulting from poisoned Halloween candy were family related. Still, ask any parent what their greatest fear is around Halloween and the answer will probably be fear of tainted candy.
**A new and unfamiliar event. Without a doubt we fear the unknown far more than the known. When a danger becomes familiar, we no longer treat it as a danger. For example, Americans regularly agonize over new and unknown strains of flu like the avian flu, “which to date  has killed precisely no one in the U.S.” At the same time, people have to be convinced that their yearly flu shot is important even though the common flu “contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year.” Which strain of flu should we really fear? Similarly, we freak out over a bag of spinach that probably doesn’t really have E.Coli, but we will load up on sodium, cholesterol, and fat, which will kill us more slowly. If it is new, it is more frightening. Remember when HIV/AIDS was first discussed in the eighties? What about the most recent overreaction to Ebola? Thousands die every year of the “regular” flu, but no one panics.
**We fear the disastrous more than the commonplace. Try to convince a person who fears flying that they are statistical far safer in an airplane than in an automobile driving to the airport. Besides the emotional reality that they have no control in an airplane, one plane crash that kills 250 is emotionally more disturbing than 250 people killed in a hundred auto crashes. And, don’t further confuse them by pointing out that poisoning by drugs (mostly prescription) kills more people than do car crashes! Likewise, two recent cruise ship accidents led many people to state they would never take a cruise, completely overlooking the fact that worldwide there are thousands of cruises every year without any mishaps. The spectacular scares us.
**Our fear increases due to over reporting. The question is simple: Is it happening more or are we hearing about it more? The evidence is that crime is decreasing, wars are fewer, diseases are being cured, and life is generally safer than it has ever been. The problem is that the crime, war, and diseases that still exist get reported far more often and in far more detail than they used to. The perception is, therefore, that there is actually more of it. For example, if a family was murdered by a father in Cleveland in 1970, those in Phoenix may have heard about it on the evening news or may have read about it the next day in the paper. They would have considered it an awful crime, but it was a long ways off, and was soon forgotten. Today, that same crime is reported and analyzed instantly and continually until someone calls it an epidemic and we feel as if it happened next door.
Contrary to popular belief, recent research has shown that the “decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” This conclusion, reached by three different authors, “runs counter to what the mass media is reporting and essentially what we feel in our guts.” The Cold War ended without nuclear weapons being used, the death toll in wars is significantly lower now than it used to be (due to smart weapons and better medical care), genocide deaths are lower, more countries are ruled by democracies than dictators, and murder and rape is significantly down in both Europe and America. Yet, we think the world is more violent. Why?
For one, the past is inaccessible to most of us. We forget or don’t realize how violent the world has been for most of its history. Nothing is recent American history has been as violent as the Civil War, the two World Wars, gangland warfare in the thirties, or even New York City in the seventies.
Second, of course, 24/7 immediate and intimate news reporting brings it right close to home. War and casualties of war are no longer faceless statistics, but are realities brought into our living rooms that very day. During the early part World War II photographs of dead American servicemen were not allowed to be published. Compare that with the immediacy of reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Third, our religious culture is fascinated with apocalyptic scenarios. There was a fear increase toward the end of the 1990s, especially regarding the much overhyped Y2K computer bug. Our post 9/11 worldview is one filled with terrorists and potential terrorists. Certainly, novels, movies, and television help promote these fears through fictional, yet highly entertaining and highly unlikely scenarios.
Finally, our culture is far more open than it used to be. Are crimes, including child abuse, for example, simply being reported more today than in past decades? It would appear so. Not only are the reporting mechanisms far more prevalent and efficient, but there is greater awareness about crimes, and in particular those “hidden” crimes that used to go unreported, swept under the carpet as family secrets. We are hearing more about “it,” for there is less silence than there used to be.
So how do we live in such a fearful society? Some suggestions:
1. Be careful, but don’t be obsessive. No, no one wants to let their children play unsupervised in the front yard any more, but the reality is that most child abuse is done by a member of the family, not a stranger.
2. Realize that life is dangerous. There will be falls, cuts, and broken bones. That is OK. They are the basis for some pretty good stories later on.
3. Check the spectacular stories being reported against the facts. Yes, violence still happens, but it happens a lot less than it used to in most cities. An example of this has been the reports of how dangerous border cities are in Texas. The reality is that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. And, Laredo and McAllen were way down the list of most dangerous cities in Texas, behind Odessa, Lubbock, Houston, and others.
4. Finally, and this one hurts, make sure your fear is not driven by your prejudices. Just because someone is poor or ethnic does not make them dangerous. I used to spend a lot of time on the North side of Fort Worth, which is predominately Hispanic. When some people found that out, they were concerned and worried. Why? I will let you answer that.