How safe are YOU

The media get blamed for a lot of social problems that they’re not really responsible for, such as anorexia in teenage girls, violent behaviour in children, cigarette smoking and so on.

However, there is one thing I think can be blamed squarely on ‘The Media’: the public’s distorted perception of risk. Granted, with the rise of the internet ‘The Media’ is a lot more complex and amorphous than it was even ten years ago, but often the same distortions that make the headlines on the local news channel are mirrored online. For every atm scam that makes it to the evening news on CP24, there are five that I get via email.

Not everyone knows about snopes.com or thinks to check it every time they see or get emailed a scare story. Though they probably should. Or at the very least, understand that ‘The Media’ is really the world’s biggest Drama Queen.

Take terrorism, for example.

According to a study by HealthyAmericans.org, seventy percent of Americans ranked chemical terrorism as a major concern in 2007. Never mind the odds of anywhere in the US being the subject of such an attack for now, or the fact that if you combined the populations of all the major cities that could possibly be victim to such an attack it wouldn’t add up to anywhere near 70% of the US population.

Instead, just take the real-life scenario of a chemical attack that did happen, under the worst-case scenario, which took place almost 12 years ago to the date I post this. Picture one of the most crowded places, most populous cities in the world – Tokyo, Japan. Then picture an attack using one of the scariest chemicals of them all – nerve gas. Then imagine it being released in the scariest of all urban places – subway stations full of commuters at one of the busiest times of the day. Not just one attack either, but FIVE. How many people died as a result of the attacks – that occured in one of the most densely populated parts of the world? TWELVE.

So even under the worst-case scenario of something that’s highly unlikely to happen the first place, the odds of dying from it are still miniscule.

Another scare story making the rounds is Bird Flu. This is probably something that is cause for concern – for birds. For people? Not so much.

How is The Media to blame for this? Take this headline as an example, from one of the world’s most reputable news sources, the BBC. The headline reads: Bird flu ‘could kill 150m people’. A hundred and fifty MILLION? Holy crap!

Then take a look at the sub-heading: A flu pandemic could happen at any time and kill between 5-150 million people, a UN health official has warned.

The BBC, not known for being a scare-mongering tabloid, took the highest, scariest number and plugged it into the headline.

That headline was from about 18 months ago. How many people has it killed so far, in the entire world? 169. Most of those deaths have been in Indonesia, one of the most densely populated, impoverished parts of the world. In their entry in the CIA World Fact Book, there is a long list of diseases to be wary of if you plan to travel there. Their entry for avian flu:

“highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza has been identified among birds in this country or surrounding region; it poses a negligible risk with extremely rare cases possible among US citizens who have close contact with birds (2007)”

Obvious (except to their own audience) fear-mongering outlets are the tabloid news. Take this, from Fox News: Iran, Iraq, Etc.: Email Your Pick of Top Terror Threat. “Are you tired of trying to make sense of what bogeyman, country or crazed group is trying to do us in from week to week?”

Even reputable organisations do the same thing – such as this report from the New Scientist: US ‘unaware’ of emerging bioterror threats. Part of the article speculates that “Terrorists could potentially develop bioregulators that disrupt the immune system, neurological system or endocrine system.”

Why do these stories crop up over and over? Most media depend on advertising or subscriptions for their revenue. The more viewers they claim, or the larger share of audience, the more money they earn. The more dramatic the headline, the more likely that someone is going to read it. Even someone such as myself will click on a link to a dramatic headline if only to see what kind of BS someone is trying to scare me with.

That isn’t to say that terrorist incidents don’t happen. It’s obvious that they do. My husband has a relative who was killed in a bomb attack in India. It’s terrible what happened – to a very nice person, a family man, minding his own business, on his way home from work one day. My husband’s family couldn’t care less about the odds of something like that happening, because it did happen. The same goes for victims of such attacks everywhere.

But what could the victims or the Indian government have done to prevent it? In reality, pretty much nothing. There are a lot of crazy nutjobs in the world who can come up with all sorts of dodgy rationalisations for violence. No amount of policing or social control can stop everyone who has an agenda and is determined to carry it out. Part of life is that tragedy can strike out of the blue, from anywhere at any time. But that’s no reason to live in constant fear or suspend civil liberties. It’s no reason to believe the crap spewed on Fox news or vote in power-hungry whackjobs who promise to protect you. It means to live life as fully as possible because you never know when your time is up. And in the meantime, look both ways when crossing the street.

For further reading: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1562978-1,00.html

http://www.junkscience.com

http://www.schneier.com/essay-155.html

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