Friday, October 24, 2014

Mitigating Halloween and Our Obsession with Risk

Pedestrian safety became an issue on my neighborhood listserv in Durham last week when some parents decided they wanted to seal off streets this Halloween.

“Helicopter” parents apparently get a little testy too as several did when one neighbor, a university professor in our midst, dared raise the potential of “unintended consequences” along with the fact that “we are terrible” at estimating risk.

In my former career, I often found myself in what crisis management expert Peter Sandman calls the “calm down” business which is futile in addressing those in “fear” or those in the “outrage” business.

I remember a few months before 9/11, sharing with a journalist friend, the book by sociological researcher Dr. Barry Glassner, now the president of Lewis & Clark College entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

It mostly fell on deaf ears.  Journalists pride themselves on objectivity but by the nature of their craft, are more often slaves instead to anecdotes, especially those that cause alarm among audiences.

With fewer and fewer resources spread among too many outlets all chasing the same stories, rarely, if ever is there time or inclination to delve into perspective, thus, we see the media repeatedly use fear to bully public policy as it is doing with Ebola right now.

Then, as if totally unaware of cause and effect, they turn around and publish “lookie-there” stories about how upset people are and how officials are pandering to fear, completing a self-fulfilling feedback loop.

Journalists, other than the media analysts/hosts of On The Media will collectively be in denial that their outsized coverage of a potential pandemics and obsessions with beheadings by thugs may turn out to be enough to sway the upcoming election.

But it is more complicated than that and the news media is not entirely to blame.

The news media is indeed biased, but not in the partisan way Republicans have ingrained us to believe.  Media analyst Brooke Gladstone, in her book The Influencing Machine notes the real biases in the news media.

She explains that journalists are indeed biased when it comes to bad news because we, the consumers, are “wired to care about anything that even remotely threatens us…this makes the world seem more dangerous than it is.”

Some years ago, communications researchers helped the organization I led back then unwrap the source of entrenched negativity about the community I represented among residents of two nearby communities.

Without first lowering the barrier this created, any promotion would be futile.

They concluded that the news media there were not breeders of the negativity but rather carriers, and that any messaging we undertook needed to distinguish among news decision-makers there the role of over-weighting and lack of perspective from news content.

It worked and became one of three pillars that turned the condition around to a positive by the late 1990s, which in turn loosened up financing that enabled Durham’s subsequent brick and mortar revitalization.

Glassner took no prisoners in his book Culture of Fear, which was republished with updated perspectives and research in 2010, especially among editors, journalists and especially publishers keenly aware of how lucrative fear stories are.

But he and Gladstone agree that the solution lies with us as news consumers and part of that means speaking up whenever fear is blown out of perspective as it was on my neighborhood list serve this week.

Journalists often lurk on these networks in search of story ideas that resonate but hopefully, they are also seeing how sloppy or inaccurate coverage can fuel reactions to fear among ordinary citizens in ways that can have unintended consequences in society.

Group-think decision makers, who seemingly cloak fear-based reactions with rational or maybe who just didn’t think through the ramifications, often react defensively to interjections to “calm down,” turning snarky instead on the messengers.

But one rational outcome on our listserv this week was circulation of a link to a report on pedestrian-car collisions issued a couple of months ago by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

Using data in the report, a neighbor on the “calm down” side of the exchanges computed that the odds of any child on Halloween being injured in an accident involving a motor vehicle is 1-in-240,000,000, far less than accidentally stumbling.

The report breaks down vehicle accidents involving pedestrians between 2008 and 2012 across the state including by region, comparing rural vs. urban and ranking the most prone cities.

Durham ranks fourth as a city, its same rank by size of population but fifth as a county, one spot higher than by population.  It is too bad the researchers couldn’t include non-residents where they work in one community during the day but live in another.

Communities such as Durham have a net increase in drivers during the day of nearly 137,000 drivers, a much higher proportion than other cities. It also doesn’t factor in visitors who in high-performance Durham add 25,000 drivers here per day.

But even if weighted for total drivers vs. just population that wouldn’t entirely explain why Durham has more incidents than say, Winston-Salem.

Many people dismiss these pedestrian-car crashes as merely related to alcohol, nighttime, age or weather but that isn’t the case.  Nearly 90% and more than 95% of the crashes respectively, alcohol use is not suspected on the part of the pedestrian or the driver.

Over 75% involve pedestrians are older than 16 and younger than 60, and 73% of the drivers involved are older than 20 and younger than 59. Over half of the instances occur in daylight and another fifth on lighted roadways.  Nearly 80% occur when the weather is clear.

I’m certain everyone commenting on my neighborhood listserv this week considers themselves rational, enlightened and open-minded people, but cognitive scientists know we are lousy at challenging our own beliefs.

“Fundamentally,” according to researcher Dr. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, “we are primarily intuitive not rational.”

But he cites studies on reflection and reasoning in moral judgment by researchers at Harvard and Stanford that show that  when we are “forced to reflect for two minutes on a different point of view[,that] can make us substantially more tolerant” of opposing views.

In an excellent post on her blog Otium entitled “Do Rational People Exist, a Yale PhD. candidate gives an excellent overview of research finding related to our cognitive biases.

She concludes from the findings that rational people do exist, and while in a minority, it isn’t a “tiny minority.”  For one, I’m relieved when those who in this minority are speak up, even if it makes some of use uncomfortable.

And lurking news media may also just pick up some valuable grist that will help us put what collectively threatens us in far better context rather than the “rush to judgment” the feeding frenzy of news stories fueled in Durham during the Lacrosse case or now in Ferguson, Missouri.

But I fear the reaction may just be “lookie-there” or anecdotal disbelief as it was this week when forensics and numerous grand jury eye-witnesses in Missouri rounded out some premature speculation.

One thing I know from experience is that news media, while unrepentant nor introspective about its role, collectively just points the finger in another direction.

But news outlets are a reflection of the masses and only we the consumers can generate perspective.

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