Purveyors of distorted perception

In one of my recent posts, I linked to an excellent article (via Schneier) which discusses how the media distorts the public's perception of risks.

In another of his excellent essays, Schneier lists five general patologies in people's perception of risk:
  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can't control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.
As a contemporary example, here is a recent article on BBC News titled Shot boy's parents speak of loss. Besides the obviously inane headline (well, duh - what else are the kid's parents expected to do? Celebrate?), it is striking how many other articles the BBC devoted to this topic. It's also all over other UK media outlets.

The impression all this coverage gives us is that there's a serious problem with children getting shot in the streets of the UK. Yet, looking at the UK National Statistics, the number of children aged 1-14 that died in 2005 was 1,210. The majority of those, 991, died of various disease-related causes. Only the remainder, 219, died of external causes. Of those, 183 died in accidents; of those, the largest group, 103, was transport accidents; of those, 48 were injured as pedestrians. In other categories, 10 died as a result of falling, 21 drowned, 1 died as a result of being "bitten or struck by dog" (should we ban dogs?). 1 was struck by lightning. 8 died as a result of being assaulted, none of them (this is 2005) by firearm discharge.

So, now we have this one occurence in 2007 which causes the statistics to log '1' in row "X95: Assault by other and unspecified firearm discharge". Those chances are the same as being struck by lightning.

As a result of this incident, we have non-stop media coverage of the shooting and the mourning parents; and yet, there is virtually no coverage of the 991 cases that died of disease-related causes (how many of those could have been prevented?), no coverage of the 183 that died in accidents. Maybe the news outlets would cover the one that was struck by lightning - but even that would be a minor article, not a series of 10 articles. And how about the other 8 children and 35 teenagers that died as a result of assault? They weren't shot, but does that mean their parents aren't going through grief?

What does that tell you about the media?

What does that tell you about their value in helping you understand the world in which you live?

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