Opinionista Ivo Vegter 29 December 2014

13 ways the media tries to scare you

Another aircraft accident, another opportunity for hysterical sensationalism. Everything has to be scary. It is worse than last year, and perhaps even the worst ever. If it isn’t, your story had better be a banal listicle, because otherwise you just won’t get read. The result? Widespread fears masquerading as common knowledge.

In his Academy Award winning 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, the politician turned climate alarmist Al Gore injected a quotation from Mark Twain. He isn’t the first presenter to do so, and most would recognise the line: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The inconvenient truth about this quotation is that it just ain’t so.

The text runs differently, and so does its attribution. Mark Twain never said any such thing. Generally attributed to a rival humorist, Henry Wheeler Shaw, who wrote under the name Josh Billings, the original reads: “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

For the most part, this knowledge of the untrue can be blamed on the media. It was always thus, but it has become worse. Journalists have to rush to beat rivals to publication, and editors are expected to deliver clicks, which is an incentive to sensationalise news. Worst of all, too few people, the media included, stop to check facts that appear plausible.

When Air Asia flight 8501 disappeared this weekend, presumed lost with 162 souls aboard, the Wall Street Journal was quick to quote “experts” who dubbed “this decade the world’s worst in aviation history”.

It is obviously a tragedy for those involved, but it wasn’t the worst decade in history. Not by a long, long way. But that’s how headlines get written.

A less sensational alternative can be found on Business Insider: “If The Missing AirAsia Plane Crashed, 2014 Was One Of The Deadliest Years In Aviation In Almost A Decade”. It sounds convincing, considering that the Sydney Morning Herald and the Seattle Times (winner of nine Pulitzer prizes) had already concluded the same thing by July.

Research houses that keep track of aircraft safety statistics differ because of how they count crashes and fatalities. The Aviation Safety Network reports only major accidents since 1942, defined as loss of the hull of a multi-engined aircraft involving at least 14 fatalities. Its numbers support neither the “worst decade in aviation history” claim, nor the “worst year in a decade” headline.

To give the benefit of the doubt to the sensationalists, I’ll use the data from the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives (B3A) instead. Its definition is wider, counting any aircraft that is damaged beyond repair, and its time series goes back 97 years, to 1918.

The B3A reports that 2014 saw the fewest crashes since 1926, but it agrees that in terms of fatalities it was the worst year of the last nine. Business Insider’s headline was the only technically correct one.

But what does this imply? Are we entering a scary new era of dangers in the air? When people ask if you’re comfortable flying after the four major airline crashes this year, are they right?

What these headlines don’t tell you is that the last decade was the safest in aviation history. The truth about airline safety is the exact opposite of what the Wall Street Journal would have you believe.

Aircraft Safety ivo column

In addition to the improved safety record over time, airlines are also safe in absolute terms. According to data compiled by a Anxiety Disorder Treatment Centre in the US, you’re more likely to die from a bee sting or a lightning strike than end up in an aircraft crash. Aeroplanes are seven times safer than trains, 80 times safer than riding a bicycle, and 500 times safer than long distance road trips by car.

Sensationalism is not limited to aircraft accidents, of course. Although major accidents make for lurid footage and scary stories, many other fears are exaggerated by the media and the spin doctors that supply so much of the so-called “news” today.

Many of the fears are whipped up over health, safety and the environment. On closer examination, however, most of the scary stories are either false or exaggerated.

Instead of leading with headlines that since 2001, new HIV/AIDS infections have declined by 33%, anti-retroviral therapy has dropped in price from R100,000 per year to only R1,500 per year today, or 29% fewer people die of the disease every year, they show you scary numbers with no context.

When Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in a city known as “sun city” and the “Russian Riviera”, climate activists made a big deal out of the fact that there wasn’t enough snow. They’re quick to smack down anyone who dares to joke about the UK’s icy weather bomb or the polar vortex that keeps causing such severe weather in the US, and indeed, weather is not climate. However, the media will happily bite on the bait of a petition by sportspeople, by publishing alarmist headlines pondering a warming world and the future of the winter games.

You might have heard that desertification threatens Africa’s food supplies and that its exploding population will likely end up experiencing famines as a result. But despite the ominous predictions, hunger has not increased in Africa. It has steadily decreased. The Sahara has not marched southwards. On the contrary, Africa, like the rest of the world, has been getting greener.

A notion that is routinely bandied about as an off-the-cuff truth is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Let’s leave aside that the phrase was first used as a criticism of cronyism and corruption in government by a 19th century US president, to describe the purpose towards which the people felt public policy was directed.

Is it true? Extreme poverty declined by half between 1990 and 2010, five years ahead of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of 2015. Most other socio-economic indicators have also shown improvement.

You’ll be told that economic growth is not sustainable, or that we consume too many “planet Earths”. These claims, widely reported, are contradicted by the WWF’s own Living Planet report. It reports that while the world’s population has increased by over 120% since 1961, the resources required to sustain this population rose by a mere third. Not only that, but the population growth rate has already peaked, as has the total amount of farmland under cultivation. Both population growth and economic growth are eminently sustainable by these measures. We’re not running out of resources.

That same report claimed that over half of all animals on Earth have been killed since 1970. There turned out to be many reasons to question the numbers, however. Besides for the confusion between “animals” and “animal species”, which Radio 702 and Cape Talk both got quite wrong, even committed environmentalists disbelieved the WWF’s alarmist exaggerations.

Another fear that was resolved this year was raised in 2012 by a Free State University hydrogeology professor. The late prof Gerrit van Tonder went to the media with claims that he was “100% certain” that shale gas drilling, or “fracking”, in the Karoo would cause “one of the biggest water pollution problems in the world”.

He finally committed his findings to a peer-reviewed journal early this year, albeit one of little standing. Notifying me of its publication, he said if two simple precautions are imposed upon drilling companies, he’d be happy. It’s that easy: science raises potential risks and also provides possible solutions. Sadly, this process rarely allays the public fear sparked by the initial media hysteria.

When the year’s big disease story, Ebola, hit global headlines, public panic spread rapidly around the world. Both in human and economic terms, the outbreak was – and still is – a terrible tragedy for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. However, the Ebola doctor I chose to quote turned out to be quite correct: isolated cases, rapidly contained, are all the rest of the world will see of the disease.

I don’t know if all this adds up to 13 ways the media tries to scare you. I don’t really care. I wrote that headline just to get you to click on the link. The point is this: the media does try to scare you. Don’t let it.

I hope 2015 brings you health, liberty and prosperity. And whenever you read something scary, please follow this excellent advice. DM


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