November 30, 2010

Junk journalism: media flaming fear and irrationality

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:44 pm

The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz recently took the media to task for spending too much time covering the TSA’s new procedures, referring to it as a “‘junk’ journalism epidemic.”

I’ve about had it with media types who insist on turning this into a junk story.

A government agency with more than a $7 billon budget that touches 2 million people a day (now sometimes literally) with little accountability? That’s exactly the kind of story that the media should be focused on.

Unfortunately, Howie is right in that while they’ve stayed on the story, the handling has largely been junk.

There are two biases in today’s media: laziness and sensationalism. They lazily do the standup at the airport with the grandma who says she’s happy to fly naked if it makes her safer. (Portland TV stations sent their reporters to Portland International Airport, even though the new procedures aren’t in place there.) They don’t bother to question whether it actually makes her safer.

They lazily interview John Pistole with his pat answers that admonish people that it’s all for their own good and to remember 9/11. Deference to official sources is just as strong as it was during the lead up to the Iraq war. Tough questions are few and far between. Official statements are treated as gospel. Even in Howie’s piece, he quotes Pistole as saying “Very few people actually get the pat-down at all … it’s a very, very small number.” That “very, very small number” is about 60,000 people a day.

They also interview security consultants, who have either worked for these same agencies or make their money by working for the companies that make the scanners or both. Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff’s company worked on behalf of Rapiscan, one of the two suppliers of the devices.

They lazily quote polls from other news organizations without any understanding of what the poll asked or what the answer meant. The widely quoted CBS News poll was garbage.

For the most part, they don’t ask about whether the new procedures are effective or whether they can be worked around. They can — just insert the explosives into the rectum or vagina. That’s right, we have government employees fondling law-abiding citizens without cause, even though a terrorist can easily work around it. Even the companies that make the new imaging devices are uncertain whether they would have detected the underwear bomber.

They don’t bother to ask about all of the risks the TSA ignores while it puts on a show at the security checkpoint.

There’s also a bias to sensationalize. Some people are afraid to fly as it. The bogeyman of the Muslim terrorist plays well. We fear dying in a plane bombing because incidents that involve aircraft get a disproportionate amount of media attention. The media have a financial incentive to sensationalize: scared people watch TV to hear the “experts” talk about how to stay safe.

What the media don’t talk about is that flying is incredibly safe. 2 million people a day fly in the U.S. That’s more than 700 million people a year. In the last 9 years, there have been:

  • More than 300,000 deaths in car crashes.
  • More than 130,000 people murdered.
  • Exactly zero fatalities from aviation terrorism in the U.S.  6.6 billion passengers and zero fatalities.

Everything we do in life has a risk to it. Taking a shower, walking down the street, going to the mall.

I travel between 50,000 and 100,000 miles a year most years. I also travel on larger planes and to and from foreign countries. My risk of dying in a terrorism-related plane crash is much greater than that of the average American. (16% of Americans have never flown; another 37% fly less than once a year.) But I’m not worried because I know the risk is so unbelievably tiny it’s not worth worrying about. The TSA’s new procedures don’t reduce that already insignificant risk.

The Cinnabon at the airport food court is a bigger threat to your health and well being than a terrorist is. And, by the way, what the TSA doesn’t want you to know is that the guy working behind the counter at the Cinnabon didn’t have to go through security.

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  1. Why don’t airlines object to TSA enhanced patdowns?…

    Plane and simple: economics. Before the TSA came into being, airlines paid the full cost of airport security. They contracted with independent security companies like Wackenhut. With the advent of the TSA, a $2.50 per flight segment (up to $5.00 per on…

    Trackback by Quora — December 10, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  2. Is airport security efficient, or just a deterrent?…

    Airport security is neither efficient nor a deterrent. It is a big show to make people believe that the government is doing something to protect us. Someone who is determined can easily bypass security measures. I’m very thankful that the attack that …

    Trackback by Quora — February 8, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  3. To fly within the United States you have to take your shoes off at security. To fly to the USA you don’t. How can both policies be rational?…

    TL;DR: The TSA’s focus is on making Americans feel safe. Most Americans don’t travel internationally, so it can accomplish its goal by having absurd security measures within the U.S. The policies are clearly inconsistent, especially when you consider…

    Trackback by Quora — March 27, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  4. What can we do to eliminate or at least decrease to a tolerable degree the airport security theater?…

    Sadly, anon is right. Nothing is likely to work. People who complain about the idiocy of the TSA are often portrayed by media and others as kooks. I’ve been the most vocal person on Quora about the various stupid acts of the TSA and I do wonder if pot…

    Trackback by Quora — May 2, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  5. [...] is interesting because the media like to dramatize risk and play to our fears. (It’s good for ratings and circulation.) The odds of dying in a terrorism-related plane crash are so incredibly tiny it’s not worth [...]

    Pingback by Airbnb’s changes don’t go far enough « reDesign — August 1, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

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