Worry About the Right Things

For the past two weeks I’ve written about how the media — part of the Fear Industrial Complex — profit by scaring us to death about things that rarely happen, like terrorism, child abductions, and shark attacks.

We do it because we get caught up in the excitement of the story. And for ratings.

Worse, because many reporters are statistically illiterate, personal-injury lawyers get us to hype risks that barely threaten people, like secondhand smoke, or getting cancer from trace amounts of chemicals. Sometimes they even con us into scaring you about risks that don’t exist at all, like contracting anti-immune disease from breast implants.

Newsrooms are full of English majors who acknowledge that they are not good at math, but still rush to make confident pronouncements about a global-warming “crisis” and the coming of bird flu.

Bird flu was called the No. 1 threat to the world. But bird flu has killed no one in America, while regular flu — the boring kind — kills tens of thousands. New York City internist Marc Siegel says that after the media hype, his patients didn’t want to hear that.

“I say, ‘You need a flu shot.’ You know the regular flu is killing 36,000 per year. They say, ‘Don’t talk to me about regular flu. What about bird flu?’”

Here’s another example. What do you think is more dangerous, a house with a pool or a house with a gun? When, for “20/20,” I asked some kids, all said the house with the gun is more dangerous. I’m sure their parents would agree. Yet a child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming pool than in a gun accident.

Parents don’t know that partly because the media hate guns and gun accidents make bigger headlines. Ask yourself which incident would be more likely to be covered on TV.

Media exposure clouds our judgment about real-life odds. Of course, it doesn’t help that viewers are as ignorant about probability as reporters are.

To demonstrate that, “20/20″ ran an experiment. We asked people to put on blindfolds and then to pick up a red jellybean from one of two plates that held a mixture of red and white jellybeans.

We offered $1 to anyone who could pick up a red bean.

Here’s the catch: While one plate held 20 jellybeans and the other 100, the plate with 20 beans had a higher percentage of red ones. We put up signs that told people this clearly: “10 percent red” of the small plate and just “7 percent red” of the big plate.

Surprisingly, even with the percentage signs in front of them, a third of the people picked the plate with 100 beans.

What people saw overwhelmed their ability to think abstractly about probability. They saw more red on the big plate. It’s one reason people obsess about things that have a small chance of hurting them but ignore real threats.

Another is the illusion of control. People who fear flying are comfortable driving because they think they’re “in control.” Yet driving is probably the riskiest thing most of us do. Think about it: We drive at 65 mph, a few feet from other cars — some of which are driven by 16-year olds! And our cameras have caught people curling their eyelashes and reading while driving.

A hundred people die on the road every day. But the media are much more likely to do scare stories about plane crashes than car accidents.

So take our reporting with heavy skepticism. Ignore us when we hyperventilate about mad cow disease and the danger of asbestos hidden behind a wall.

Instead, worry about what’s worth worrying about: driving, acting reckless, smoking cigarettes, drinking too much, and eating too much. “What is your blood pressure, what are you eating; are you exercising?” is what patients should think about, says internist Marc Siegel. “But obesity is boring. Heart disease is boring. So we tend to not think of the things that can really get us.”

The media make it worse. Instead of educating people to real dangers, we scare them about things that hardly matter.