In the early 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in the public perception of crime as the most important problem facing the country – 52% of Americans, in 1994, felt that crime was of utmost concern. Based upon data from 1978 through 1998, results suggest that this “big scare” was more a network TV news scare than a scare based upon the real world of crime. The television news alone accounted for almost four times more variance in public perceptions of crime as our most important problem, than did actual crime rates, which – believe it or not – have actually gone down in the last fifteen years.
Yes – down: For the 10-year trend, from 1996 to 2005, the FBI reports that violent crime declined nearly 18%. Murder decreased 15% in 2005 compared to 1996. In this same time period, robbery offenses decreased 22%. Even motor vehicle theft decreased, down more than 11% in 2005 compared with 1996.
So just what are we so afraid of? If you’ve managed to avoid the crime scare, modern media has some other worries for you: How about dying in an airplane accident? Getting cancer from …well, anything at all? Virulent breeds of superbugs resistant to every known antibiotic? Food safety? Organ trafficking? Killer bees? Having your child kidnapped? Hooked on drugs? Or finding a razor blade in their Halloween candy? Lead in toys?
For what it’s worth, the Halloween razor blade thing never happened, and most of those other concerns are overblown as well. Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear (Basic Books, 2000), calls these “pseudodangers”, and says the media, advertisers, politicians and various companies and organizations thrive on them and the money (or votes, which ultimately translates to money) that your fears bring them. Pseudodangers, suggests Glassner, represent an opportunity for us to avoid facing problems head-on. Rather than address – or perhaps, better said, because of our inability to address — poverty, we fear the criminals that poverty can create. Our inability to address foreign policy issues renders us terrified of terrorism.
“In just about every contemporary American scare,” says Glassner, “rather than confront disturbing shortcomings in society, the public discussion centers on disturbed individuals.”
Our fears, however, are often far worse than our realities.
According to John Meuller, the Woody Hayes Chair of national security policy and professor of political science at Ohio State University, we’re suffering from a national false sense of insecurity.