Putting The Dangers of Today’s Risks, Crises and Disasters into (Some) Perspective

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An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that recent terrorist attacks have vaulted terrorism and national security to become one of the American public’s top concerns. This finding is consistent with a Gallup poll, which also showed terrorism as the public’s most important U.S. problem. A Harris Poll/HealthDay survey found that 25 percent of Americans view Ebola as the major public health threat to the United States. Sixty-three percent of Americans believe their world is becoming a riskier place, while only 15 percent feel it is less risky.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC): “the news is full of stories about people who have been raped, robbed, mugged, or otherwise assaulted, and everyone cringes when they hear these reports. Who hasn’t feared becoming one of these victims? The truth, however, is that the incidence of personal violence has dropped to its lowest level in almost three Chelsea Bombing Coverdecades. Violent crime – murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault – was down from a high of 52.3 incidents per 1,000 people in 1981 to just 21.1 incidents per 1,000 in 2004, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice. Aggravated assault – which involves attack with a weapon or attack without a weapon that results in serious injury – was down even more sharply, from 12.4 incidents per 1,000 people in 1977 to just 4.3 incidents per 1,000 in 2004. Everyone – and this applies to residents of big cities, small towns, and even rural areas – needs to be careful, but these lower rates of crime are evidence that if people are vigilant and take common-sense precautions, crime can be prevented.”

Nonetheless, the Chapman Survey on American Fears discussed people’s perception of rising crime risks:

“’What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.’ Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.”

Despite the public perceptions that the most serious risks are terrorism, Ebola and increasing crime – it may be helpful to put these perceptions into (some) perspective.

Since the mid-1970s until 2014 at least 11,079 people have died from outbreaks of Ebola in central and west Africa, according to the World Health Organization. This is obviously a tragedy and a concern. True enough, the number of terrorist attacks and fatalities reached a record high in 2012, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. More than 8,500 terrorist attacks (very broadly defined) may have killed about 15,000 people in 2012 mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. That development and statistic is certainly horrific and significantly tragic on both the personal and social levels. However, in comparison, Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus  points out that “in 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world: 620,000 died due to human violence. (120,000 were killed in wars). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes…. In 2010, obesity killed about 3 million people worldwide.”

Zika headline

Harari continues: “Yet, in the U.S. we spend $16 billion a year fighting ‘terrorism’ and just over $1 billion a year fighting diabetes. That’s about $360 million per terror victim. By way of comparison, we spend about $38 per person with diabetes in search of a cure…. For the average American or European, Coca Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.”

Statistically speaking, Ebola is not even close to being the number one health problem despite the widespread perception that it is. Likewise, terrorism is not the biggest threat to personal safety and crime is not on the rise in the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, last year fatalities in the USA from unintentional falls (30,208); motor vehicle traffic deaths (33,804); and unintentional poisoning deaths (38,851) each more than doubled the worldwide deaths from terrorism attacks. Yet, none of these categories even appeared in the polling for biggest risks and threats to personal safety. Workplace accidents claim far more U.S. lives than do terrorists.  4,821 workers were killed on the job in the U.S. during 2014 (3.4 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) — on average, more than 92 a week or more than 13 deaths every single day. Cancer kills approximately 1,500 people each and every day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the biggest contributor to child mortality with 36 million deaths recorded worldwide in 2005 related directly to malnutrition. Any comparison to the 15,000 deaths from terrorism seems obvious.  The same comparison could be made for any of the health issues for which the WHO complies statistics of annual fatalities. These include:

  • Heart Disease 6 million
  • Cerebrovascular disease 6 million
  • HIV-AIDS 6 million
  • Lower respiratory infections 8 million
  • Diarrhea 8 million

World Health Organization Diabetes Statistics

Why do people overestimate the threats from some risks and underplay the risks from others – regardless of the actual statistical facts? In part, the answer to that question may have to do with people’s exposure to the entertainment and news media selective and highlighted depictions of risk, violence and dangers narratives that tend to (over) emphasize the sensationalized threats and devote little attention to “mundane” but far more significant risk and danger.

Mean world syndrome is one of the main concepts of media cultivation theory originally proposed by George Gerbner. It describes a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

According to the mean world syndrome construct, the effects of media (television, online, print, film, etc.) on society shapes their perceptions of risks and dangers. In other words, people who watch these distorted (sensationalized) depictions in the media tend to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place and more dangerous than it really is. The number of opinions, images, and attitudes that viewers tend to form when absorbing media content tends to have a direct influence on how the media consumer perceives the real world. Gerbner wrote that the spread of the syndrome will become more intense over time. He described how newer media technologies actually allow more complete access and spread of recurrent messages.

So, if you consume media both entertainment and news (e.g. television, newspapers, magazines, websites, online authors, YouTube, film, radio, BLOGS, etc.) you receive a distorted picture of the world and in particular of the relative dangers posed in the world. In fact, your perception of dangers and risks is shaped by the “reductionist” content from a particular perspective of the generators of the media content. In most cases, the content is either implicitly or explicitly biased towards sensationalization. In both entertainment and news businesses (and some say that there is no longer much of a difference in those two categories) there is a motive to attract attention with ever more sensational story lines.

It may be helpful as we consider priorities for crisis and disaster planning to put the dangers of into (some) perspective. This would also seem to be sound advice for public policy makers and public and private sector decision makers.

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