How do you understand the level of danger in the world around you? Is it through real life experience? Through statistics?
Or is it through the media? In particular, news media.
Say, here are two real life examples that make no sense whatsoever.
1. After 9/11, Americans began choose to drive more often instead of flying. One German researcher estimates that this led to an approximate 1,595 extra deaths in car crashes in the year after the attacks.
2. While violent crime has been consistently decreasing for the last 20 years, Americans consistently believe that violence crime is increasing.
The odds of dying in a plane crash are around 1 in 11 million. The odds of dying in a car crash are around 1 in 303. So why the hell did so many people decide to go and increase their chances of dying in the year after 9/11?
Why do people believe violent crime is on the increase, when in fact the exact opposite is happening.
Are you more afraid of flying, or getting in a car?
Are you more afraid of being caught up in a terrorist attack, or being struck by lightning?
Are you more afraid of your child being abducted by a paedophile, or them falling on the stairs?
Your answers to these questions depend heavily on how much news you consume.
So what does the news have to do with your perception of danger?
the news marketplace
The news is a product to be sold. It is not a reflection of reality.
I'll say it again.
The news is a product to be sold. It is not a reflection of reality.
I could say this over and over again from now until the end of the century and it's importance still wouldn't be stated strongly enough.
For the news to exist, it needs to make a profit. Period.
Whether it's from the number of viewers during the ad break on TV news, the number of clicks on an article online or the number of newspapers sold.
The most successful news sources are the ones that make the most money.
Now. In the world, there is an infinite number of "stories" for journalists to choose to report.
Stacy from Liverpool fell over drunk in the street today. A child in Africa died of starvation today. Isabelle cooked a delicious dinner for her family today. Mohammed went to the cinema and enjoyed watching Escape Plan 2 today (See, look how multicultural this article is).
The fact is..
The majority of the world consists simply of people going about their everyday business.
If the news was a true reflection of reality, it would showcase this truth.
But of course, the majority of this infinite number of "stories" the world has to choose from are mundane and unimportant. This is why journalists don't report on them.
So how do journalists choose which stories to report on?
Is it based on which stories would be most helpful for the general public to know about?
But unfortunately, the main influence on which stories journalists choose to report is: Which stories will get the most attention and therefore make the most money.
So what does this have to do with your perception of danger?
The nature of the news marketplace leads to an inaccurate portrayal of the danger in the world.
In fact. Ironically enough...
The more common a danger is, the less it will be reported
Because car crashes are so common, they're not news. Cancer isn't news. Heart disease isn't news. While stories like these do sometimes make it into smaller news segments, they almost never make the front pages.
Like in any marketplace, novelty sells. The same is true for the news marketplace.
How News Coverage misleads your brain
Anyone who frequently watches the news is exposed to weeks of coverage on the latest terrorist attack, with all of the details of the incident being reported in great detail. While the latest statistics on car crashes appear just briefly in a news crawl at the bottom of the screen.
Coverage of the terrorist attack includes multiple interviews of victims of the incident describing their experience of the horrific incident in detail. The news will lay out the story step by step, almost as though it was a movie.
It was a quiet, beautiful morning in Paris. Just like any other day. Who could have known that 50 innocent people would soon be brutally murdered..
So the viewer gets a visceral image of the attack in their mind. They get to imagine how it would feel to be caught up in such an attack themselves and how they might act in such a situation.
Would I run? Would I hide behind the door and jump on the terrorist when they walked in? Would I escape through the window and climb down the pipes?
Car crashes, on the other hand, are generally reported as statistics.
40,000 people died in automobile accidents this year in America.
This is forgettable. It doesn't form any particular image in your mind and is therefore not remembered.
The subconscious brain of the viewer takes this information and comes to the conclusion that terrorist attacks are a major danger to watch out for. On the other hand, your subconscious brain has very little exposure to car crashes and therefore decides they can't be as much of a threat.
We have a cognitive mechanism that scientists call the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a person’s mind when thinking about a particular topic.
There are 2 main rules to the availability heuristic:
If it can be recalled, it must be important
More recent information is more strongly recalled than older information
This leads to people being terrified of being caught up in a terrorist attack but being perfectly fine with texting while they drive.
fear and the brain
The brain evolved to pay attention to fear. Fear is an uncontrollable response to a threatening stimulus. Nobody chooses to feel fear. It happens involuntarily.
Fear hits the amygdala, an old part of the brain that controls instinctual responses.
So over the years news media realised that fear-producing stories got better ratings than positive stories. This is why you see so much bad news. Good news doesn't sell.
Now news media isn't the only reason we're afraid of particular things and not others. There are a number of reasons why someone may be afraid of flying: claustrophobia, a lack of control, fear of heights.
Certain things, like flying or having your child kidnapped by a paedophile have aspects to them that naturally cause fear in people. So when stories relating to these fear producing events are in the news media, they get more attention.
Take stories about plane crashes as an example.
A TV news station covers a recent plane crash and notices that many more people were tuned in during this story. This means that more people watched the advertisements in the commercial break and so results in an increase in profits for the TV station.
Seeing this trend, the TV station decides to focus on a number of follow-up stories, surrounding bad plane safety practices, alcoholic pilots and terrorist threats against planes.
This then causes the public to become more afraid of flying and therefore more attracted to fear inducing stories about flying. This increased fear of flying then encourages the TV station to sensationalise and exaggerate the next plane crash.
This is the news scare cycle.
The fear of flying, terrorists and paedophiles may be innate, but our subconscious idea of the frequency of these dangers is increased by news media.
To the public, there seems to be stories about plane crashes all the time. Flying seems to be a highly dangerous activity.
What the public doesn't consider is that the news is not accurately reporting on reality. It is simply choosing stories that allow them to make the most profit.