Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What are you afraid of?

I need hardly point out that statistically, the odds of you or your children being murdered at random by a homicidal maniac are extremely remote, in spite of recent incidents that have dominated the news. In fact, present company excepted, the most likely killer of a child is a parent, as I have discussed before, with mother's boyfriend right up there. But when a parent or babysitting boyfriend or relative kills a child, it isn't ordinarily news.

Now, I can't blame CNN and the rest of the show biz gang for intensive focus on the recent incidents in schools. These are more interesting than run of the mill murders precisely because they are unusual, and of much more use to television producers because they happen in public spaces where they can get lots of footage. Without film, it isn't news either. And we certainly can't blame them for making huge stories out of terrorist attacks, even though, as with school shootings, we could have an attack of the magnitude of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack every month, and it would make a scarcely discernible bump in the death rate. Yet even a ridiculous rumor of a possible future terrorist attack gets far more media attention than all the ways people die that they don't have to.

This is probably unavoidable -- the news biz is show biz, and people just aren't going to deliver their eyeballs to advertisers in exchange for a daily recitation of the tawdry and tragic facts of everyday life. Domestic violence merits attention when the people involved are famous, because everything celebrities do is interesting. It also merits some attention when the people happen to be white and live in the suburbs or the country, because we are supposed to think there is something unusual about that, I suppose.

But the distinction between what is news, and what are the actual facts of life, means that people just don't have a realistic basis for thinking about the appropriate priorities of public policy. The real dangers -- the kinds of events that are most likely to kill or injure you or people you are about -- are scarcely in consciousness, while the remotest possibilities loom large. Right now, of course, the political leadership is deliberately manipulating these misperceptions, which doesn't help. But the fundamentals of the news business make that very easy.

Responsible journalism in the public service would require a concerted, ongoing effort to correct that imbalance by providing in-depth coverage of the facts of public health. But, as I just commented on the great blog of Jordan Barab, Dick Cheney should join the nearest Quaker meeting and George W. Bush should become a monk and take a vow of silence. Which is most likely?

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