On Crime and Food Poisoning: How mass media skews our perception of reality and distracts us from real danger
By: Ryan Robinson, PhD
The year was 1968. The internet was little more than a fever dream, and the idea that in just twenty-years there would be not one but several competing round-the-clock news channels seemed laughably absurd. Mass media was dominated by print, and by a handful of television stations that still piped out entertainment and education “over-the-air” to be received by on vacuum-tube driven set-top boxes and rabbit-ear” antennae. It was in this undoubtedly simpler (but unquestionably more violent) time that Professor George Gerbner, pioneer of communication theory, would first coin the term “Mean World Syndrome”.
Some background on Gerbner: he was born in eastern Europe in 1919, witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany, emigrated to the US in 1939 and served in the OSS during the end of World War II. He was undoubtedly familiar with the true nature of violence and danger, as most men of his generation were.
Gerbner’s most enduring phrase, and the concept that came to be synonymous with his career and identity, was borne of a simple observation. The general populace had become increasingly reliant upon television as a source of entertainment and education, and television had become increasingly reliant upon depictions or descriptions of violence (both in the nightly news, and in dramatic entertainment). The result was intriguing, there was a dramatic increase in public perception of danger. In other words: the more television you watch, the more frightened you are of the world around you, even if the world around you is perfectly safe.
Today, in an era where visages of terror dominate cable-news networks, and internet news-feeds compete to be the first to air footage of mass-shootings, Gerbner’s thoughts are more poignant and valid than ever. Research from the Pew Center and FBI crime reporting statistics shows that, while violent crime has been declining sharply for nearly thirty years, and while the risk of terror is infinitesimally small, people largely still feel less safe than ever in their home, community, and neighborhood.
The cause of this mental-block is a psychological phenomenon known as the availability heuristic. Our minds are drawn to images and ideas that are easy to recall. Dramatic, violent events on the nightly news make a lasting imprint in our memory. They are simple to recall and easy to imagine. Our brain takes a mental-shortcut with this information, and mistakenly interprets these events as commonplace, telling us that they are disproportionately likely to occur.
Normally, one might not perceive this as a significant issue. A commonly held piece of wisdom is that there’s no danger in being too cautious. The reality, though, is that we have limited capacity for focus and attention. While we’re focusing on preventing ourselves from being mugged or stabbed in a back-alley, we are overlooking other issues that are far more pertinent and pose a major, tangible threat to our health and well-being. Collectively, it’s as if we’re motorists barreling down the highway and taking our attention off the road to focus on a smudge on the rear-view-mirror.
Overcoming the availability heuristic to find what’s really killing us?
We’ve established that, by-and-large, the availability heuristic leads us to disproportionately anticipate dramatic, memorable events, and draws our focus away from the quiet, unreported danger around us. So what are we to do? How do we overcome this mental-block and tackle the biggest problems first?
As with most logical fallacies and psychological tricks, the antidote to the availability heuristic resides in data. Thankfully, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps meticulous data on the cause and prevalence of morbidity (disease, illness, or injury) and mortality (death) in the United States through the National Center for Health Statistics.
Data presented by the NCHS, and represented in the CDC’s publication the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) may come as a surprise to some. The largest killers in the United States are Heart Disease and Cancer respectively (CDC, 2014). Accidents (dominated by automobile accidents) are a far removed third place killer, and violent crime and terrorism don’t even make the list.
In each of these major areas health and safety officials have made significant inroads. Heat disease has decreased dramatically since the 1960s, cancer rates are holding steady as life-expectancy has risen. Accidents also continue to fall in the wake of modern work and highway safety standards. Still, buried among these dangers, there are sources of illness, disease, and death that are rising. Proverbial dark-alleys where little attention is directed, but much is needed.
Foodborne illness: and underestimated, lethal danger on the rise
A recent CDC MMWR report, published April 21, 2017 highlighted the incidence among the general population of infectious agents that are traditionally transmitted through food. The data, collected through CDC’s FoodNet (a system for reporting foodborne illness and infection), displays a stark increase in nearly every form of tracked foodborne illness in the United States.
Reports of dangerous infections from pathogens like STEC, Shigella, and Salmonella are rising at an alarming rate. The report attributes a significant portion of this rise to improved laboratory detection methods, but this gives little comfort in the presence of the data. Whether the incidence of foodborne illness itself is in fact rising sharply, or whether previously uncovered incidents are only-now being brought-to-light, or (more-likely) whether it remains a mixture of both factors, the fact remains that foodborne-illness, prompted by lax food-safety standards, is all too prevalent in modern society.
A particularly frustrating observation is that this rise comes despite the prevalence of both the technology, and the capacity to combat and control it. In 2017 our brightest minds remain baffled by the multitude of different genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors that may cause cancer. We still struggle to understand the genetic predispositions that cause some people to have a higher risk of heart disease. We are only now beginning to overcome the economic, social, and technological factors that cause highway accidents. We have, however, known how to control the most common forms of foodborne illness. A series of simple, straightforward, and easy-to-implement techniques that have been readily accessible to everyone for generations. The only reasonable explanation for so dramatic an increase in most forms of foodborne illness is relaxation of food-safety standards in production, manufacturing, and preparation.
As we move forward into the twenty-first century, and as global population continues to rise, food-security and safety will become increasingly important. We must protect our food-supply from dangerous and deadly pathogenic bacteria.
Perhaps it is time that we address foodborne illness the seriousness it demands. We may need to address this rising tide of danger with the same vigor, and the same resource allocation that we have used previously to combat heart disease, cancer, automobile accidents, and even international terror.