From the faces of missing children on posters that cry "Have You Seen Me?" to public service announcements about cancer and other illnesses; from the terrorist attacks splashed across daily headlines to the reports of mad cow disease and avian flu on nightly newscasts, the media provide the public with no shortage of things to fear. The message is clear: The world is a scary place, and you should be worried.
A Time magazine cover in April 2006 said it outright: "Be Worried. Be Very Worried." The media aren't the only purveyors of fear, however.
"I think there is a fear industrial complex," said Barry Glassner, author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," and more recently, "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong." He said the fear industrial complex is composed of politicians, activist groups and corporations that all sell us on the idea that they can provide safety from the very dangers they are scaring us about.
We at ABC are as guilty as any other media outlet of rushing out to cover every new threat that arises. And the reason we scare people is simple:
"Fear gets your eyeballs," said. Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of "Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition" and founder of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass.
For broadcast media, eyeballs equal ratings. For politicians, eyeballs equal votes. For activists, eyeballs equal support for their causes. For corporations, eyeballs equal sales. The bottom line: Worry and fear sell.
"Whenever somebody's trying to scare us, the question to ask is 'Are they benefiting from it, and in what way?'" said Glassner. "If they're selling us a product, if they're selling us their political campaign or their cause or whatever it is, we should ask how big is the danger, really? Is it big, is it small, or is it just that they stand to benefit by making us scared?"
In the case of the media, they provide plenty to worry about, like shark attacks being on the rise, killer bees attacking, flesh-eating bacteria and countless other threats. But they are rarely reported with any real perspective on the actual risk involved. Suddenly, the public starts to panic over something that poses minimal risk at most.
"We often worry about things that … are not very dangerous, but which seem it. And the reason they seem it is because of … the media who show images and tell stories about terrible, terrible things that happen," said Stephen Dubner, co-author of "Freakonomics." "People see those things and they think that they are the norm, and in fact, they are a great exception."
Take shark attacks, a summer favorite for the media back in 2001. Dubner said shark attacks are a great example of a source of worry, having been the cause of only 100 fatalities worldwide in the last 15 years.
"Yet, when there's one shark attack in Florida one summer, and it becomes the big news story in the slow summer on network news," he said, "think of the millions and millions of people who won't go in the water for days, weeks, months, years."
Certainly shark attacks happen, but, he said, "You're much more likely to be killed … walking in your backyard and hitting a rake and having it hit you in the head and fall into a lawn mower than a shark attack."