Applying Glassner's "Culture of Fear" Thesis to Today's Society

How Fearing Plane Crashes Obscures Widespread Social and Economic Dangers

Barry Glassner's
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The unsettling news of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was still lingering when another Malaysia Airlines flight was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile over the eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Later that year, an Indonesia AirAsia flight crashed into the ocean, killing all on board. Less than a year later, 150 people were murdered when a pilot intentionally crashed a Germanwings jet into the French Alps.

With sensational news stories like these circulating in our media, it's no wonder that the dangers of air travel are on the minds of many. Seated on a plane as its engines rev for takeoff, one can't help but think about the possibility of disaster. But truth be told, the risk of flight is actually quite small. The risk of being involved in a crash that results in deaths is just 1 in 3.4 million, and the risk of being killed in a crash a slim 1 in 4.7 million. In other words, you have a 0.0000002 percent chance of dying in a plane crash (this according to data compiled by PlaneCrashInfo.com, covering the years 1993-2012). By comparison, one has a far greater risk of dying in a car crash, while playing American football, canoeing, jogging, cycling, or attending a dance party. Really.

How Glassner's Culture of Fear Thesis Explains Our Misplaced Concerns

So, why do we fear the wildly unlikely while many realistic threats go unnoticed?

Sociologist Barry Glassner wrote a book about this very question and found that by focusing our fear on non-threats, we actually fail to see the very real threats to our health, safety, rights, and economic well-being that ever-present throughout our societies. More than anything, Glassner argues in The Culture of Fear that it is our perception of the danger of things like crime and plane crashes that has grown, not the actual threats themselves.

In fact, in both instances, the risks these pose to us have declined over time, and are lower today than they were in the past.

Through a series of compelling case studies, Glassner illustrates how the profit-model of journalism compels media to focus on unusual events, especially bloody ones. As a consequence, "Atypical tragedies grab our attention while widespread problems go unaddressed." Often, as he documents, politicians and heads of corporations fuel these trends, as they stand to benefit politically and economically from them.

The costs to us and to society can be great, as Glassner writes, "Emotional reactions to rare but disturbing events also lead to expensive and ineffective public policy." An example of this phenomenon is Jessica's Law, which requires all sex offenders in the state of California, even if they had only offended once as a juvenile, to see a psychologist before being paroled (previously this happened only if they had offended twice). As a result, in 2007 no more offenders were directed to psychiatric help than had been previously, but the state spent $24 million in just one year on this process.

Mainstream News Media Fail to Adequately Cover Real Threats

By focusing on unlikely but sensational threats, news media fail to cover actual threats, and thus they tend not to register in public consciousness.

Glassner points out the exceptional media coverage that surrounds the kidnapping of toddlers (primarily those who are white), when the widespread systemic problems of poverty and underfunded, inadequate education, which affect vast numbers of children in our society, go largely ignored. This happens because, as Glassner observes, dangerous trends that have been around for a long time are unappealing to the media -- they are not new and, so, not considered "newsworthy." Despite this, the threats they pose are great.

Getting back to plane crashes, Glassner points out that while news media are honest with readers about the low risk of flight, they sensationalize that risk nonetheless, and make it seem much greater than it is. By focusing on this non-story, they divert resources from covering important issues and real threats that deserve our attention and action.

In today's world we would be better served by reporting—especially by local news sources—on threats like that to our well-being posed by economic inequality, which is at its highest in nearly a century; the forces that conspire to produce an increasing number of mass-shootings; and the many and varied threats posed by systemic racism to what will soon be the majority of the U.S. population.