Remember August 2001, when shark attacks were headline news? Or how about this summer when kidnappers lurked on the cover of every newspaper? Whatever happened to those killer bees that were going to descend on our cities in biblical numbers?

Paul Wong
Jess Piskor

We are told to live in fear. Our world, one we feel so safe and secure in, is actually a death trap with the grim reaper peeking around every corner – or so we are lead to believe. Everything causes cancer, every diet kills and everyone is genetically predisposed to lifelong depression and eventual Alzheimer’s. Threats and fear bankroll media outlets across the United States. Fear sells. But it can’t be too real. A populace hiding in the basement doesn’t go out and buy products. It has to be scary enough that viewers ask, “What is this world coming to?” but not real enough that people decide to actually do something like voice an opinion.

So we get lots of stories about anthrax and syringes in coke bottles but few stories about the numerous bloody civil wars currently being fought around the globe or huge economic failures in countries like Argentina that leave millions penniless. Generally, our news of fear confirms our own sense of superiority, both individually and as a nation. Problems in other countries are portrayed as the result of bad leaders, poor government and broken-down infrastructure, all with the underlying premise that the people in these countries are to blame for their sorry state. We in the United States however, like to think that we are only subject to problems that are beyond our control. Kidnappers are crazy, sharks are vicious killers and what could we have done about West Nile virus?

We can’t stop it; it’s not our fault. Furthermore, it makes us laugh-off real tragedies just as we have learned to smirk at conjured up fears. Here around the Great Lakes there is understandably little fear of shark attacks. So when we watch reports on television we laugh at the silliness and scoff at the problem. It’s not something we Midwesterners will ever have to worry about. Unfortunately, when real tragedy occurs – a ferry capsizes off Senegal, a weapons depot explodes in Nigeria, a rebellion in Sierra Leone – people tend to have the same reaction. We don’t have to worry about it. We’ll never be in that position. Once people begin to think “Well, it’s down in Florida, it’s just stupid sharks and it won’t happen to me” it’s a short step to “Well, it’s in Africa and stuff like this happens all the time and it won’t happen to me. What could I do, anyway? Besides, it’s probably not that bad.” The problem here is that unlike shark attacks, there are real opinions that need to be voiced and real issues that need to be worked out. And yes, it probably was that bad.

We’ve been conditioned to see news as entertainment. Something to shock and titillate us. Slow news days aren’t lacking in news, they just lack things that a television audience cares about: sex, drugs, car chases and degenerates.

The media is not, of course, entirely to blame. What type of news is covered in a country is a good indicator of its people. The media conducts countless surveys and tailors its news to exactly what its viewership wants. Survey says: people demand stories about the relationship between cell phones and brain cancer, high-tensile power lines, exploding manhole covers and moldy basements.

Yes, we get up in arms about kidnappers, but I think deep down we know it’s irrational. We know kidnapping is at record low levels and we joke about how the media is trying to create a story where none exists. But somehow, these minor fears serve as reassurance that nothing really bad is going on in this country. Our problems are small and insignificant. Our problems are the result of out-of-control nature (sharks, bees, snake-headed fish, termites), crazy people (kidnappers, serial killers) or technology run amok (cell phone cancer, Y2K). We can rest assuredly knowing that while little things may be not perfect in the United States things in general are right on the money. After all, if things were really bad would the ever-so-diligent media be reporting on shark attacks?

We have grown to trust the media too much. If CNN doesn’t mention it, then it must not have been that big of a deal. If it’s the lead story then gosh, it must be important. We complacently let an ever shrinking number of news outlets decide for us what is news and what isn’t. By the logic of ABC/CNN/FOX/MSNBC, irrational fear is news and news is money. Luckily in the United States, the land of wonder and peace, we can afford to ignore the world go on worrying about razor blades in apples. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Jess Piskor can be reached at jpiskor@umich.edu.

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