NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Unfounded Fears Fueled By Media Coverage?

April 27, 2000

Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, "uses persuasive logic and well-chosen statistics" to demonstrate the infrequency of rare events that preoccupy Americans in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic Books, 1999).

For instance, fatal air crashes, road rage and school shootings frequently dominate media coverage, and yet:

  • The average person's probably of dying an air crash is roughly the same as winning the jackpot in a state lottery -- about 1 in 4 million.
  • Only one in 1,000 highway fatalities is due to "road rage."
  • More than three times as many people are killed by lightning as are killed by violence at schools.

Yet nearly half (48 percent) of all reports about children on the CBS, ABC and NBC evening newscasts concern crime and violence, while only 4 percent concern children's health and economic issues. That kind of lopsided news coverage is one way fears are grossly exaggerated, given the actual frequency of rare events.

Source: Grant Jewell Rich, "Why Do We Often Fear the Wrong Things?" Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2000.


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