Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Fearful Confusion

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Fearful Confusion

Article excerpt

"Risky Business: Vividness, Availability, and the Media Paradox" by John Ruscio, in Skeptical Inquirer (Mar.--Apr. 2000), 944 Deer Dr., N.E., Albuquerque, N.M. 87122.

Do more Americans die each year from (a) shark attacks or (b) falling airplane parts? Remembering the movie Jaws (1975) and news accounts of various incidents involving homicidal sharks, most people would probably answer (a). The correct answer, however, is (b). Falling airplane parts get nowhere near the publicity but kill 30 times as many people in an average year. Ruscio, a social psychologist at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, says this illustrates a larger truth: The mass media give us a warped sense of life's hazards.

In part, this is because of the nature of "news": Man bites dog, not dog bites man. (Shark bites man is another story.) Seeking out the unusual to captivate readers or viewers, the news media then do their best to make their accounts vivid, emphasizing concrete details and the personal and emotional aspects of the story. Precisely because the accounts are vivid, Ruscio points out, they tend to stick in readers' and viewers' minds, available for ready recall later. "A news report will leave a more lasting impression by documenting one individual's personal suffering than by providing a scientific argument based on 'mere statistics. …

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