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A Sociologist Explores the ‘Culture of Fear’

In his research, Barry Glassner found that no amount of debunking can wipeout a fear — no matter how unrealistic — as long as someone can find a way to profit from it. One danger of fearing the wrong things, says Glassner, is that legitimate concerns get trivialized.

Photo by Irene Fertik

Schoolyard shootouts. Pedophiles in cyberspace. Flesh-eating bacteria. Road rage. Workplace violence.

Such highly touted threats do pose a grave danger to American society, but not for the reasons commonly supposed, warns a USC sociologist in a new book.

“We waste tens of billions of dollars and person-hours every year on largely mythical dangers,” writes Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic Books, 1999). “We had better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us.”

Marshaling police reports, scientific studies and skeptical media accounts, Glassner debunks dozens of false fears.

Did you know that there’s never been a single confirmed death or injury from a stranger poisoning Halloween candy since the scare first surfaced in 1958?

Or no matter how catchy the phrase “going postal,” postal workers actually are 2 1/2 times less likely to be killed on their jobs than the average worker?

Or if you were to add up all the mentions in the press of the millions of Americans with heart disease, cancer, migraines or other illnesses, you’d find that the total number of Americans supposedly afflicted with a serious disease is 543 million – a shocking number in a nation of 266 million inhabitants.

Other threats that have been hyped out of all proportion to their actual danger include heroin addiction among teens, teen pregnancy, airplane fatalities – even murder.

The problem with aggrandizing questionable concerns, Glassner said, is that legitimate concerns tend to get trivialized.

Isn’t it odd, asks the sociologist, how little we’ve heard about the menace of drunk driving since “road rage” was coined – especially since drunk drivers cause about 85 times as many deaths as road rage.

Or how exposés of cybercreeps omit the fact that it is poor children – few of whom can afford America Online connections – who are disproportionately abused, and it is in children’s own homes and those of close relatives that sexual abuse commonly occurs.

Or how little we heard of work-related injuries and fatalities in the mid-1990s when the press obsessed over airline accidents, which resulted in fewer than a dozen deaths in the best years and a few hundred in the worst? Meanwhile, each year dangerous work conditions result in the deaths of more than 50,000 Americans and the injury of almost 7 million more.

“The public has become skeptical and critical of the news media in recent years – and part of the reason has to do with ignoring truly important concerns and compounding others beyond all reason,” said Glassner.

It’s a case that Glassner, a sociology professor in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Science, is in a unique position to make. Before coming to academia, he worked at ABC Radio and wrote syndicated articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide. As a sociologist, Glassner is well-regarded for his expertise in methodology – or devising measurements needed to make reliable scientific claims.

Glassner, who is also the author of Bodies (1992) and Career Crash (1994), became interested in fear during the 1992 presidential campaign, when controversy over the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of television character Murphy Brown escalated into a full-scale attack on all unwed mothers, particularly those in their teens.

“Politicians and the media were saying that teenage mothers were destroying this country, and if this problem wasn’t controlled, it was going to be a big national disaster,” Glassner recalls. “That just seemed impossible to me in principle – there aren’t enough of them and they’re mostly poor, so even if you added up all the possible consequences, this could never amount to one of the nation’s biggest problems.”

Yet, because both Democrats and the Republicans agreed on the magnitude of the danger, the scare seemed valid.

Glassner was right to be suspicious. At the height of the teen motherhood scare, fewer than 22,000 teen moms throughout the United States lived without supervision, he found. Indeed, between 1992 and 1996 the rate declined by nearly 12 percent.

That both Democrats and Republicans were complaining about the problem reveals less about the validity of the scare than the manner in which false fears are generated.

“To go out and say, ‘Teenage mothers are not the big problem that we thought they are’ is to invite your opponent to say, ‘You’re condoning teen pregnancy,’” Glassner said. “So the safe stand for politicians to take is just to keep spreading the same scares collectively.”

The sociologist ended up spending five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern.

“Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares, including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects and political parties,” Glassner said.

No amount of debunking can wipe out a fear as long as someone can still find a way of profiting from it, Glassner found. Take kidnapping. In 1985, two Denver Post reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing that strangers snatch few missing children.

The majority of missing children, in fact, are runaways fleeing from physically or emotionally abusive parents. Most of the remaining missing children are “throwaways” rejected by their parents, or kids abducted by estranged parents. Yet, in national studies, three out of four parents continue to say they fear that a stranger will kidnap their child.

Glassner blames particular marketers for perpetuating confusion about missing children. One company mails out an estimated 57 million postcards weekly to American households. “Have you seen me?” reads the lettering above the smiling face of a missing child. The headline might as well refer to the real reason for the mailer: the advertisement for a local business, which appears on the other side of the postcard.

Just as bipartisan hand wringing is a common characteristic of false fears, so is a tendency to recycle sensational scares, Glassner found. The deaths of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin in 1996 provided an opportunity for politicians to look tough on drugs by warning that “smack is back.” So popular was heroin among high school students that it had become the “the pot of the ‘90s … as common as beer,” press accounts announced. But in fact, the nation’s use levels had not changed, nor had the drug won any new popularity among high school students.

“With less than 1 percent of high school students trying heroin in a given year and the bulk of heroin use concentrated among inner-city adults, heroin is one of the least common causes of death among teens,” Glassner writes.

OTHER FOCAL POINTS for unwarranted fears include:

    • School violence. “More than three times as many people are killed by lightning than by violence at schools.”

    • Flesh-eating bacteria. “An American is 55 times more likely to be struck by lightning than die of the suddenly celebrated microbe.”

    • Killer co-workers. “You are several times more likely to be killed by lightning than by someone you work with or employ.” Part of the blame for false fears rests with the media’s penchant for crime stories, Glassner said. Between 1990 and 1998, the nation’s murder rate declined by 20 percent, but the number of murder stories on network news increased by 600 percent, Glass-ner calculates.

“It’s hard to expect the proper perspective from a watchdog whose dictum is, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’” Glassner said. But reporters are different from other fearmongers because they at least “sometimes bite the fear that feeds them” by correcting or debunking exaggerated scares, Glassner writes.

“A group that raises money for research into a particular disease is not likely to negate or soften concerns about that disease,” Glassner said. “A company that sells alarms is not about to call attention to the fact that crime is down.”

A Sociologist Explores the ‘Culture of Fear’

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