Over the last several years I have noticed a common topic which comes up whenever I talk with my father. He always mentions about how there was another shooting, and how bad the crime is in the city. After he repeated this enough I began to wonder what was going on. Whenever I visit, everything seems as good or better than it ever was (though the homeless problem is worse than ever). I did a bit of digging and found that the crime rates have been declining for years as they have most everywhere in the country.
So what is going on here? Here is my theory: TV news. He has been watching more TV news in recent years and the steady drumbeat of stories about crime and tragedy gives the impression of a unfolding disaster. I have heard it said that the plural of anecdote is not data, but the plural of scary anecdote is fear.
Imagine a TV station which, every night, on the news aired a story about someone who was struck by lightning. Someone killed! Next night, a person injured and in the hospital near death! Next night, a person who was struck years ago and still suffers. Next night, a person killed when a struck tree exploded. Next night, a person whose dog was struck in the dog park. And so on. Each one accompanied with grisly photographs and footage. After enough of this many people would be scared to ever go outside. And that advertisement for a portable Faraday Cage starts to look like a good idea.
But, as we all know, this fear is utterly irrational and not backed up by the data: only 270 people are struck by lightning in the US each year, and only 27 of them die. Furthermore, that death rate has been on the decline since records have been kept (1940).
But TV news lives for the lurid anecdote, the horrifying footage, the eyewitness stories, etc. That keeps the ratings up. And creates a lot of fear of the wrong things. Even when they give numbers it is one or two numbers which is not very useful. For example, if I told you that the stock market fell 350 points, you might think you need to panic, but then if I tell you that the current number is 27,691, then you would know that is a tiny percentage, and likely a normal fluctuation. But if I give you a chart showing the stock market numbers over the last year or two you could actually make an informed decision based on long-term trends. But that won’t keep their ratings up.
This sort of thing is also what gets people elected, the current incarnation of the Republican party has taken this to the most cynical extreme as stated by Newt Gingrich when he was challenged with actual data:
“The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think that crime is down, does not think that we are safer. People feel more threatened. As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel.”
In other words, screw facts, data, logic, and rational discourse, if I can whip up enough fear I can get myself elected. The dreams of the founding fathers trampled in the name of winning.