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Do the Media Lead us to Fear Terrorists Too Little—or Too Much?

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Speaking to military personnel on February 6th, President Trump lamented that terrorist attacks are “not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.” The implication was that opposition to his seven-country immigration ban arises from our being insufficiently aware and fearful of the terrorism threat.


Or, we might ask, are we instead too afraid of terrorism? In 2015 and again in 2016, feared Islamic terrorists (none from the seven countries) shot and killed fewer Americans than did armed toddlers (see here and here). Homicidal, suicidal, and accidental death by guns claim more than 30,000 American deaths each year.


After vivid media portrayals of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, 27 percent of Americans identified terrorism as their biggest worry. In two national surveys (here and here), terrorism topped the list of “most important” issues facing the country.


Ergo, does the evidence not compel us to conclude that we are, thanks to the hijacking of our emotions by vividly available images, too much afraid of terrorism . . . and too little afraid of much greater perils? And might we instead fault the media for leaving us too unafraid of the future’s great weapon of mass destruction—climate change?

Are some prominent voices today, as in George Orwell’s 1984, seeking to control us by manipulating our fears? To me, George Gerbner’s cautionary words to a 1981 congressional subcommittee seem prescient:

Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures.

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And people are much more likely to purposefully kill themselves with a gun than kill someone else.

"In the U.S. for 2010, there were 31,513 deaths from firearms, distributed as follows by mode of deat..." Nationally, that's 61% suicides, 35% homicides, and 2% accidents. The remaining 2% were undetermined. Check with your local coroner  or medical examiner for the data for your area. Here are, for example, the reports for King County, Washington, home to Seattle and surrounding communities. In 2015, of the 164 firearms deaths, 66% were suicides, 33% were homicides, none were deemed accidental, and 1 (one, not 1%) was undetermined. 

We really, really are afraid of the wrong things. 

Thanks for this post, Dave!

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see