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Surprising Science

If It Scares, It Airs: How Alarmist News Coverage Does Real Harm

News coverage of risk that plays up how scary things sound and plays down or leaves out anything that moderates the fear does real and serious harm.

     Did you hear about that Florida mother who is facing five years in jail for child neglect, for letting her seven-year-old walk home from a neighborhood park? Or those Maryland parents who let their kids walk home from a park, only to have county authorities grab the kids from the street — in the name of protecting them — and not tell the parents for hours where their children were? Child abduction by the state, in the name of fear of child abduction.

     It has been widely reported that the likelihood of an American child being abducted and harmed by a stranger is tiny, about one in 100,000. So where did our excessive fear of child abduction come from, a sweeping and now deeply imprinted fear that has prompted the passage of all sorts of laws, spawned the growth of whole industries, and perhaps most profoundly, radically changed how children in the United States are raised, all in response to a threat that essentially exists nowhere but in our heads. The answer is a cautionary observation about a lot of risks that we learn about from the news media.   

     Six-year-old Etan Patz in New York City in 1979. Six-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida in 1981. Nine-year-old Sarah Pryor in Boston in 1985. They were a few of a spate of child abductions in the late ’70s and early ’80s that got extensive media attention for weeks, coverage understandably soaked with high drama and heart-wrenching emotion. (Mea culpa: I covered the Sarah Pryor story that way.) All of a sudden, it seemed, we were hearing about a growing risk that we somehow hadn’t paid attention to. Except there was no broader risk, just the same threat that children have always faced. Tragically, a few kids — the best estimate is about 115 a year in the U.S., most often in their early teens — are abducted and harmed or killed by strangers, a number which has held steady for as long as records have been kept.

     But rare as such cases may be, there were enough of them that, once a few nationally prominent instances had put the threat on the news media radar screen in a short period of time, newspapers and TV and radio stations in cities and towns everywhere jumped on every local case (the metaphor of sharks smelling blood in the water is overused but apt), and the national media joined in the coverage of many of those local cases. The result was seemingly non-stop front-page/top-of-the-newscast coverage of the missing-kid-of-the-month that made the risk seem WAY more common than it was, and effectively institutionalized child abduction as The New American Bogeyman.

     As evidence of how precipitously this occurred and the dramatic role the news media played, consider what Google Ngram finds about the frequency of the phrase ‘child abduction’ in books, always a reasonable approximation of the zeitgeist. Remember as you scan this chart that if you superimposed the actual threat, it would essentially be that flat line at the bottom. 

    (Image Courtesy Google NGram)

To be fair, although the likelihood of child abduction by a stranger is low, the consequence is tragically high, and the media certainly should help us be alert to risks that are low-probability, but high-consequence. And to be fair, the news media are in the business of dramatic storytelling to draw our attention to whatever might grab our interest, and we are innately far more sensitive to risks to kids than the same risk to adults. (How many stories about adult abduction do you hear about in the news?)   

     But that does not excuse a major failure by the news media in how it reported on child abduction, a persistent failure that shows up in coverage of most risks. There is an excess of alarmism, and far too little information that helps the news consumer put the danger in context. Any report about even the most dramatic of those early cases could have included half a line about how rare the risk actually is. Entire separate stories could have been done making clear that, tragic as those cases were, the likelihood of child abduction by a stranger is tiny. I actually did one of those “sidebar” pieces, reporting how rare child abduction by a stranger really is… but not until years after reporting on the Sarah Pryor disappearance, and several others, in my best emotional, dramatic, TV news storytelling way, without any context in those early pieces about how unlikely this was to happen.   

     Child abduction is just one example of fears the media have helped burn into the public psyche as truths, though the fears fly in the face of the facts. More than 90 percent of parents in the U.S vaccinate their kids according to medically recommended schedules, but as many as half of Americans say they are worried about the safety of vaccines in general, 27 percent VERY concerned, and influenza vaccine uptake averages less than 50 percent. The news media are significantly to blame for these excessive fears, after years of frightening stories about vaccine risks and sick kids that made for great copy, but failed to prominently note that these fears were not born by the evidence. No, one study from Andrew Wakefield was NOT principally responsible for this. Widespread persistent and alarmist news coverage of the entire issue was far more culpable. (See Curtis Brainard’s terrific piece “Sticking to the Truth” in the Columbia Journalism Review.)

      Nuclear radiation is nowhere near as harmful as alarmist stories report. Neither is the assumed environmental bogeyman mercury, or pesticides. Just like child abduction, they are all risky, just not nearly as dangerous as most news coverage makes them sound. And just like child abduction, the excess fear of these hyped bogeymen drive choices and behaviors that have real and harmful consequences; vaccine fears reduce the number of people vaccinating themselves or their kids, fear of radiation leads some to oppose nuclear energy, excessive fear of mercury causes some to stop eating healthy seafood, and knee-jerk fear of pesticides causes some to oppose their use, even to kill disease-carrying bugs.   

     Child abduction by strangers is a real risk. So are vaccines (in a TINY number of cases) and exposure to high levels of radiation or mercury or pesticides. But so is overly alarmist and incomplete (which means basically inaccurate) news coverage that does not put risks in perspective. We have been frightened by an “If it Scares It Airs” news media into a number of fears that are now completely accepted as truth, but which are unwarranted by the evidence, and public and environmental health are suffering as a result.


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