Scaring ourselves to death

May 18, 1994|By Mona Charen

ALL HAIL John Stossel and ABC News! At last, someone in network television has taken a sane look at risks and concluded, as the show's title implied, that we are "Scaring Ourselves to Death."

In swift, sure strokes, the program (aired last month) offered telling examples of the way television and other media hype, exaggerate and often just misrepresent the risks we face.

Hazardous waste is poisoning the ground, right? Pesticides are causing an epidemic of cancer, yes? Asbestos in schools is exposing children to needless risk, no?

Violent crime is skyrocketing, isn't it?

According to Mr. Stossel, the answer to all of the above is no. He offers persuasive evidence for the negative in every case but one, and while I come in praise of Mr. Stossel, let me register my demurral, up front, on violent crime.

The Stossel report explains that news organizations get their information on crime statistics from two sources. The first is the FBI, which collects data on reported crimes. The second is the Justice Department, which conducts a yearly survey of 160,000 Americans asking if they have been victimized. The Justice figures are thought to be more accurate since many crimes go unreported to authorities.

According to the Justice Department figures, crime, including violent crime, has not been increasing but has remained essentially flat for a decade. The FBI figures tell another story. Reported crime is increasing sharply. The ABC program quotes Mark Warr, a criminologist at the University of Texas: "We've seen large increases in reported rape over the last 30 years.

Does that mean rape is going up? Possibly. But it could also be that women are more willing to report a rape today than they were 30 years ago."

The media, especially local TV news, the report argues, serve as amplifiers of crime news and thus as fanners of crime fears.

No doubt. But Mr. Stossel overlooks the fact that most criminals are young. Since the baby boomers are getting into their 40s now, crime should be decreasing dramatically. It isn't. While the population has increased only 41 percent since 1960, the number of reported crimes has increased more than 550 percent. And with the exception of crimes like rape, where social attitudes may affect reporting, it is hard to see why reporting of murder, assault and robbery should not be accurate reflections of reality.

Moreover, the rate of juvenile crime has increased dramatically in the past decade. Between 1982 and 1991, the arrest rate for juveniles for murder increased 93 percent.

Still, Mr. Stossel introduces some much-needed perspective. The people who are the most terrified by the crime hype on TV tend to be those with the least to fear. That fear carries a price. People voluntarily barricade themselves in their homes, deny themselves pleasures like a walk outdoors and a chat with a neighbor, and spend billions of dollars on security systems, guns, mace and alarms because they are needlessly frightened. The chances of an elderly white woman being the victim of crime, Mr. Stossel reports, is about 1 in 370, whereas the risk for a black teen-ager is about 1 in 6.

Mr. Stossel is at his best presenting something television almost never offers -- comparative risk. As a consumer reporter for 20 years, he says, he was bombarded with stories of poisons in our food, our water and our air. But few, if any, of those scares proved accurate. Times Beach, the Alar apple panic, Love Canal, asbestos in schools have all been shown to be false alarms. Yet we are spending billions of dollars and have created several huge government bureaucracies to save us from just such chimerical threats.

Mr. Stossel goes further. It is more than a waste of money to attempt to make life risk-free. By spending money and other resources chasing down tiny risks like hazardous waste, we neglect far greater risks like highway safety. And by over-regulating the economy, we increase the greatest risk factor of all -- poverty.

In the course of one report, John Stossel debunked Ralph Nader, made the Environmental Protection Agency look like arrogant fools, and challenged the settled assumptions of 99 percent of his audience. It was TV at its best.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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