The year was 2001. When we hear that number, our mind automatically goes to 9/11. However, in the 8 full months preceding 9/11 there were a number of major news stories from the year that have been largely forgotten. You may remember how that summer featured a constant stream of shark attack reports. I have memories of watching story after story on shark bites, typically accompanied by helicopter footage of evacuated beaches. It was a major talking point that had a tangible impact on the livelihood of coastal businesses that rely on tourism. Government agencies scrambled to distribute information on the slim likelihood of shark attacks, and how to take steps to avoid them. Summer 2001 was and is widely referred to as “The Summer of the Shark” as a panic swept the nation.
The truth of the matter was, there was nothing unusual about shark attacks in 2001. The numbers of attacks and deaths were actually lower than the year before, when little attention was given to the matter. But out of nowhere, and for seemingly no reason, the power of the media led America to believe we were experiencing an unprecedented string of shark attacks. It was wildly irresponsible, with real life affects on real people, but they did it anyway.
I led with that because in order to rightly observe the world, you need to understand things like this happen. Many people don’t realize they happen. Others refuse to believe it when they do. Others know it happens and still fall for the trick from time to time (guilty – JW). But it’s simply a fact that the media can and does drive fear whenever they want. They’ve done it over and over again this year.
Since the start of the outbreak, we’ve had fear-inducing headlines like:
- The virus is mutating to be more dangerous (not true)
- Cases are recurring in South Korea (not true)
- Immunity doesn’t last (duh, that’s how viruses work. The immune system just learns to fight it, making reinfection far less serious.)
- Covid parties (an unfounded hoax with the same best-friend’s-sister’s-boyfriend’s-brother’s-girlfriend-heard-from-this-guy-who-knows-this-kid-who’s-going-with-a-girl sourcing that was used to announce Ferris Bueller’s grave illness)
And if the virus fears weren’t enough, we can throw on:
- A “pandemic level” new H1N1 threat (totally hypothetical at this point, per the article)
- The Bubonic plague is back (it’s been around, and it’s cured with antibiotics)
- Murder hornets (not a threat)
- Bubba Wallace’s absurd noose hoax
- And now, last but not least, UFOs
In reading that list, you might have thought “Oh yeah, I forgot about that” with regard to a couple of the entries. They come so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. But are you seeing the pattern here? These kinds of stories get rushed to print/post immediately because they drive all kinds of interest, and yet the corrections and retractions get a fraction of the coverage. With many of these, it’s pure speculation rather than actual reporting.
The other tactic at play in these stories may be the more nefarious of the two. To quote a Michael Malice catchphrase, they are factual, not truthful. For example, it was factual to say that sharks were attacking people in 2001. But it wasn’t truthful to report in such a way to imply that we were facing a never-before-seen spike in shark attacks. It is factual to say there is another swine flu strain in existence, but it’s not truthful to run that as a headline and lead people to believe we’re in danger of it.
The media’s gross misconduct is only half of the issue, though, because without our tendencies to overreact, to talk down to our neighbor, and to want to be the first of our friends to post the latest news, their headlines would do little to spread panic. If we weren’t lapping it up and running to Facebook and Twitter to lecture other people about paying attention to the latest headline, these things wouldn’t spread. In our hurry, though, fact-checking and waiting for confirmation are left totally in the dust. Our critical thinking skills are often the first casualty of panic. Take, for example, this fabrication that was shared far and wide on social media.
To start with, the first line is wrong. The death rate is well below 1%. But it gets worse from there. For example, there’s statistically no chance that every person in America is going to get the virus. The idea that 1 out of every 5 Americans will come out of this with permanent heart damage should have gotten this person laughed off the internet. With wildly exaggerated claims like this we’ve stopped just short of having Andy Dwyer declare “THE VIRUS IS SHOOTING AT US!”
Yes, the coronavirus is very real. I am not saying it isn’t, and I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. I’m not saying any of those things. But one can acknowledge both the reality of the danger and the reality that the constant attempts to drive fear are out of control (unless one is a binary thinker, of course). Yes, it is dangerous – but we know who to protect, we know what is safe and what isn’t, and we know the hierarchy of risk by age and health status. Just making up scary claims out of thin air or running with the first hint that things might possibly get worse is irresponsible and dishonest. Why do they do it, then?
Why was Neil Ferguson’s model that predicted 2.2 million American deaths the only one reported at the start of the outbreak when the man has a track record so bad he should have been banished from the industry years ago?
Why did major outlets run a headline telling us not to celebrate a lower death rate? Shouldn’t we be happy that fewer infected people are dying?
Because fear sells, and apologizing for being wrong about the fear is out of the question.
So, knowing those two principles, we can know for certain how we should act going forward.
#1. Stop giving them attention, and stop spreading the panic on social media. Turn the TV off, and ignore the headlines to the best of your ability. Thankfully they’ve played their hand too far and many are beginning to do just this.
#2. When you know the tactics, notice when they are being used. When you see the next shock headline (because total disengagement is almost impossible), take it with a gigantic grain of salt. Don’t post the speculatory articles, but rather wait for the actual research behind the speculation to surface.
#3. Learn to comb through the mounds of garbage, gather the information you need, and walk away. Use your critical thinking to sniff out those stories that seem too perfect to be true.
When you save all that time by shutting off the TV and staying off of news sites and social media, you’ll find extra time to spend in prayer, Bible study, exercise, reading old books, and connecting with friends via phone call or video chat. Which option do you think will leave you better off?