My News Vendetta; or, What Doesn't Kill You Gets Reported

Last year I was in a session with one of my students and he told me the primary reason why he didn't want to play football in college: he would eventually have to fly on an airplane. 

Now I'm a decently big person: Roundabout 6'2", somewhere around 200 pounds, give or take five to ten. It takes a considerably big person to make me feel like I am small; most big people I simply see as "big, too." But when I was around this boy who didn't want to fly, I felt like I was one of his middle school classmates. He's not much taller than I am, but he outweighs me by at least twenty or thirty pounds, and he knew how to carry it. He was known for dancing whenever people announced his name, and he could move--in that clumsy way overly-big middle schoolers moved. I'll call him Franklin.

We were in a small room, and Franklin swallowed his chair. I don't even remember how it came up, but when he said, "do you know why I am scared to play college football?" I immediately listened. What are big people afraid of, anyway? 

"Why?"

"I'll have to fly."

"You don't want to fly?"

He shook his head, "no." 

"Have you ever flown before?"

"Oh, no. No, no, no."

"Then how do you know you won't like it?"

"I may crash."

"You could crash in a car, too." 

"Yeah but that's totally different. You die in plane crashes." 

"People die in car crashes all the time. Every day. In fact," I waited for a second, looked at my watch for dramatic effect, and said, "Statistically, somebody died right now." Waited another thirty seconds with my wait finger in the air, and said, "And again right now."

After a quick statistics search, I relayed that 3,287 people die every day in car crashes around the world. 

I was not trying to make Franklin afraid to drive, simply to throw his fear of airplanes into perspective. Fewer than that die in plane crashes in a year. Last year there were 761 deaths in plane crashes. That's how many people die in cars before the end of a school day. While you sleep. 

It was useless, though. Word had just reached us about the Malaysian plane disappearance. CNN devoted entire weeks' worth of programming to the incident, published infographic after conspiracy after special report on the mystery, and devoted hours of analysis to the plane's disappearance. 

It had gone straight to Franklin's head. The news was full of the tragic plane occurrence, so his mind was stuffed with terror of them, and talking him down was not an option. The news was entirely about the terror of airplanes, so airplanes were immediately terrifying. 

An Inverse Relationship

The tricky thing about the airplane vs. car crash danger is that car deaths, unless they are particularly horrifying or otherwise noteworthy, are almost never reported. We'd run out of headline space. On the other hand, every single airplane crash is instant news, perhaps because it is such a freak occurrence. 

Franklin actually brought this up: "Are you kidding me? Have you seen all of the news about airplane crashes? They happen all the time!" 

The difference is, of course, that we hear about every single one of them. In reality, plane crashes are less likely to kill you than animals. Or lightening. Or water. 

Novel strains of influenza, like H1N1 of a few years back, is really no different than the regular flu in terms of deadliness. In that linked article, Dr. Marc Lipstich of Harvard said, "New estimates suggest that the death rate compares to a moderate year of seasonal influenza." But how much press did the Swine Flu get? Freakin tons. 

I have not done enough research to support this in peer-reviewed paper format, but I am fairly confident that I can state this with decent certainty of its truth: The more you hear from the news about something being deadly, the less likely it is to kill you.

Know what's most likely to kill you, statistically speaking? Your heart. The thing you can't live without. But not just regular people's hearts that suddenly, unforeseenly give out; they are diseased hearts which will kill you. According to the linked article from Medical News Today, "Heart disease is a term used to describe several conditions, many of which are related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries." 

How to prevent plaque buildup: don't eat bad food, exercise, and don't smoke. 

But we don't hear about heart disease killing people in America; instead, we sell cigarettes to anybody, have a McDonald's on every corner, and create clever terms for deliberately avoiding activity: Netflix binging, for instance. Heart disease is basically encouraged, and the pervasiveness of it is replaced by the terror of things which are far, far less likely to affect you.

A Real-Life Example

Lord, if there is one thing that American media loves to talk about more than a Presidential candidate likes to talk about him(her)self, it is gun control. I won't even dignify this with sources right now. Everybody is talking about American gun violence. 

What I want to know is why we're not talking about Honduran gun violence (66.59 gun deaths/100,000), Venezuelan gun violence (35.65 deaths/100,000--though this was fifteen years ago. I don't have more accurate figures), or Brazillian gun violence (18.66 deaths/100,000....I'll get back to this in a second) first. After all, the United States' 10.64 deaths per 100,000, while high, is significantly lower than several other countries--even though we have both more guns period and more guns per capita than each of those countries (310,000,000 and 34.4%, respectively). 

Furthermore, gun control laws have steadily become more lenient over the last few decades or so. Even more significant is the reality that each time there was a change in the accessibility of guns or in the laws about carrying them, there was not an accompanying spike in gun crime. I don't even think that people are trying to argue that--because such proof does not exist, and the argument falls flat. 

Here's what the argument for gun control essentially consists of: 
We have a lot of guns in the US.
We hear a lot about gun deaths in the US.
Therefore, you are likely to die by gun, and they should be banned.

What causes resurgences in the "Guns are bad, mmkay?" mentality is massive reportage about gun violence. Patsies who shot up a school, Crazies who shot up a movie theater. Someone who shot someone else in a domestic dispute.

Media has perpetrated, consciously or not, the correlation between guns and violent crime: the two do not exist without each other. 

So I want to look at two case studies in regards to this issue, just so that, like I did with Franklin, I may quell some of your fears with a real-world study.

Britain's Gun History

There have been two major movements to control guns in Britain's recent history (not counting when they tried to control us with guns in the 1700s and we controlled them right back with our guns. MERICA.): in 1968 and in 1997. The 1968 legislation was a consolidation of a number of random laws on their books, which they blended together and polished up. It functioned as more of a licensing law than anything. The 1997 legislation was in response to a school shooting the previous year. (about which the site I pulled this info from said, "This incident bears strong similarities to the Sandy Hook shootings in the US." Interesting. It sure does: in this incident, Thomas Hamilton walked into an elementary school in Scotland, shot and killed 16 children, a teacher, and himself.)

I mention these things because this is a graph of the homicides in England and Wales during the time surrounding these pieces of anti-gun legislation:

 

http://www.justfacts.com/images/guncontrol/england-full.PNG

http://www.justfacts.com/images/guncontrol/england-full.PNG

Observations about this study

Now. It is granted that there are about 8 million factors that go into a chart like this; gun laws are not at all to "blame." The point here is that violence is the cause of violence, not the method with which violence is perpetrated. I don't remember anybody blaming fists for fistfights. I don't remember anybody blaming paper companies for hatemail, telephones for prank calls, or answer keys for test-cheating.

Yet we are perfectly fine equating violent weapon availability with violence even though the more likely culprit is the heart of the person committing it. 

Do you want to know what causes violence? Desperation. Lack of education. A shortage of respect for human life. The argument that the method of something is the cause of that same thing is a tricky one to sustain; "because I could" is not the motivation behind the majority of the violence against other humans. "I had a gun, so I figured I'd shoot him" isn't the reason people use guns, even the bad ones 99.999% of the time. 

In fact, gun proliferation does the opposite of what most anti-gun advocates would argue. While this study is old and I can't find newer ones, James Wright and Peter Rossi in their 1986 book Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms surveyed a number of prisoners who were behind bars. According to the surveys, 40% of them had, at one point or another, decided against committing a crime because they believed the victim was carrying a gun and 69% of them personally knew someone who had been "scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim." (From page 155: "Have any of the criminals you have known personally ever been scared off, shot at, wounded, or captured by an armed victim? No, none: 31%; Yes, but only one: 10%; Yes, a few: 48%; Yes, many: 11%". Found on Amazon here; excerpts accessed with my old college library login in PDF form. A further peer-reviewed study by Gary Fleck appeared in Social Forces, volume 66, Number 4 (June, 1988), the pertinent passages coming from pp. 1139-1140)

But that is not a statistic that makes headlines, because that is not a statistic that instills fear in the minds of the public. 

Here's an article that you probably won't see being run on the front page of major news outlets (which are all controlled by individuals with more liberal an agenda than they'll let on): "Brazil Eyes "Wild West" gun ownership law." The short of it: lots of people are killed with guns in Brazil. So they're looking at putting guns in the hands of regular citizens "to guarantee the good citizen's right to self-defense." 

They could, of course, limit the number of guns on the market. Get rid of them entirely, even. But that would do nothing to help protect citizens; it would simply give those who get their guns illegally anyway stationary, defenseless targets to hit. 

(Remember that "disarming" criminals is something that no government, especially not ours in its present administration, is either willing to consider--or capable of--doing. The Obama administration, statedly anti-gun, for instance, was responsible for 78 percent of all global arms sales: a staggering $66.3 Billion, and for delivering weapons directly into the hands of Mexican drug cartels by way of the thoroughly under-reported "Fast and Furious" gunwalking scandal. Though I believe it would have to have been reported on to be considered a scandal). 

News Media

I have written about the absurdity of News Reporting and the irresponsibility of those who perpetrate it before (one grab from that article: "There is an inherent cancer in our American reporting standards."), but this is from a different angle. Page 209 of Brendan Bruce's book On the Origin of Spin: (Or how Hollywood, the Ad Men, and the World Wide Web created the Fifth Estate and created our images of power) reminds us of 50s American Journalist Armstrong Williams' enduring truth: 

There are two sayings that are familiar in every newsroom across the country: 1) sex sells; 2) if it bleeds it leads.
— http://tinyurl.com/p3r8hh8

Let's survey some of the major news outlets' front pages as of my time of writing this (Sunday morning, November 1) to see if his claim still holds water. I'll provide you with some screenshots. 

21 of the 36 links on these pages have to do with death, destruction, or grief (though the black hole destroying a star is pretty dang cool). The rest are politics and sports.

We are surrounded with the stuff. Swamped by depressing headlines. Psychology Today had an article in 2011 that asked those who struggle with depression to "mind your media intake" (source). 

Gavin De Becker and Associates produced a fascinating read on media fear tactics, which you can read here; and a few excerpts of which I will reprint below (without permission. Sorry. This is a blog which nobody reads).

The article goes in depth about keywords in reporting tactics and, specifically, the rhetoric used to make everything sound freaking terrifying. All excerpts from above-linked source.

POSSIBLE: As in “Next Up: Possible links between Saddam Hussein and tooth decay…”

The word “possible” doesn’t really have the specificity one hopes for in journalism, given that it is completely accurate when applied to anything anyone can possibly imagine. “A possible outbreak of…” means there has been no outbreak. “A possible connection between memory loss and the air you breathe…” means there is no confirmed connection.

“Officials are worried about possible attacks against…” means there have been no such attacks.

Anytime you hear the word possible, it’s probably not happening right now.
“OUR NATION’S…”

“...our Nation’s water supplies…”
“...our Nation’s roadways…”
“...our Nation’s shipping ports…”

They use this trick to imply some large scale to a story. “A new threat to our nation’s water supplies” won’t be a threat to our nation’s anything. Our nation is enormous. Nothing, not even nuclear bombs, poses a threat to all of any system in our society at the same time. When they say “our nation’s” anything, they are usually trying to give grand significance to something that doesn’t have grand significance. We might not perk up as much if they said, “A new threat to Klopp County’s water supply…” The incident in which old Doc Ames truck leaked oil into the reservoir just isn’t gonna scare up enough ratings. But it could: “Next up, a new threat to our nation’s water supply. An alarming incident that experts say could happen anywhere!”
SERIOUS…
“Officials consider the threat to be serious.” Is that to distinguish this threat from the threats they laugh about over lunch? Taking something seriously does not mean the risk is great or imminent. It just means officials are doing what anyone would do.

“Officials here are taking no chances when it comes to school safety.” Sort of. More likely, they’re taking no chances that reporters will broadcast a report accusing them of taking chances.

The entire article is worth reading, but these are a few examples of what news media does intentionally for the purpose of drumming up readership. The unintended (?) consequence of such language is that everything seems more threatening, pervasive, and deadly than it likely is; thus the overwhelming majority of mainstream news media is reduced not to a viable source of information about happenings in the world, but a propagandist scare machine meant only to misdirect, incite heightened alert, and push the hot-button political issues of the hour. 

Conclusion

The TL;DR is this: I know that it will come as a huge surprise to you, but you can't believe everything that you see on television, read on the internet, or glean from a newspaper....so stop trying to. We're cool calling the internet on its bull when we see a Ricky Bobby quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but when we see it on the front page of CNN or Fox or Facebook, we assume that it's true. Maybe we have inherent trust in other people to share only what they know to be certifiably true; the problem is that truth, though it exists, is slippery and not the thing which gets spoken. It gets spun, politicized, slapped in an agenda, and repackaged with so many rough edges polished off that it doesn't even resemble itself anymore. 

Let's do something. For just a week. Take every piece of journalism you read and apply this proportion to it: The more you see about something, the less likely it is to kill you. 

Listen. If there were a superflu that was entirely beyond the control of our minds to cure, you would not hear about it. If an asteroid were to be on a collision course with Earth, you wouldn't hear about it on the television. The point of mainstream news outlets' journalism has stopped being about keeping you informed and has become a sensationalist magnet to get ratings.

I say all of this to keep you from living in fear. You are my friends; I do not want you to be afraid. I also do not want you perpetuating headlines that push political agenda or are slanted to satisfy advertisers. You can be informed and you can be knowledgable, but it takes more than a single story to make that happen. Information, when it is easy to acquire, is rarely the information you need to be hearing. 

So please, for the love of all that is holy, do not be afraid of airplanes. Be more afraid of what someone telling you to be afraid of airplanes is trying to slip into your life. 

 

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.