In 2005, you couldn’t flip through a newspaper without seeing at least one mention of avian flu (H5N1). The more it was mentioned, the more the public became concerned that a flu pandemic was around the corner. And, it should be noted, the more panicky the public, the wealthier the safety and pharmaceutical industries became.
Could the world be hit with a flu pandemic? Maybe. Maybe not. When we talk about odds, we mean there are chances of things happening or not happening. A flu pandemic is not a certainty. Only people like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who held $5 million to $25 million worth of stock in the company (Gilead) that holds the rights to Tamiflu (the most popular influenza prophylaxis and treatment drug) saw the value, literally, in the media ratcheting up fervor around a flu pandemic.
When the media grabs onto an issue and reports it like it’s never happened before (witness the current recession), infuse it with one part fear and one part breathless exhilaration, the public finds it has something new to worry about.
But this is neither about the effects of mass media nor a discussion on Marshall McLuhan. It’s about losing perspective when the media reports on an issue.
Last week, TTC riders were held up on the subway. Once I got home, I found that the delay was caused by two teenagers who had been pushed onto the subway tracks by a man suffering from a severe mental illness. Fortunately, both boys survived by rolling under the platform as the train came screeching into the station. The last time something like this happened was in 1997 when a woman was pushed in front of a train and killed.
Safety advocates are calling for barriers to be constructed on all subway platforms. But the TTC doesn’t see barriers being erected for another 15 years. Other than costing hundreds of millions of dollars, the trains and platforms need to be calibrated so that the subway car doors open perfectly in line with the safety barrier doors.
Without diminishing the tragedy of these events, let’s put some things into perspective. In 2007, there were 459,769,000 passenger trips on the TTC. Let’s assume that we’ll have roughly the same number of trips in 2009 (most likely add a few million given current trends). Your chances of being pushed in front of a train or bus are infinitesimally small (1 in half-a-billion). And that this has happened twice in 12 years, the chances become so minute that you have better odds of winning the lotto (1 in 14 million for 6/49) or being killed by a dog (1 in 700,000) than being hurt or killed by being pushed onto subway tracks. I’m sure the math isn’t perfect here (and I welcome comments from a statistician) but you get the idea.
Three years after 9/11, about 40% of Americans polled thought they would be killed in a terrorist attack. Forty percent of Americans is just over 120 million people. That would mean there would have to be a 9/11-sized attack claiming 3,000 lives every day for about 110 years. This irrational level of fear was good news for the homeland security “business” and Republicans seeking re-election in 2004, but bad for the general well-being of Americans.
We can lament tragedies in our society without becoming irrational. It is incumbent on us to critically assess the media we are fed every day and to determine for ourselves whether we have genuine need for concern or whether we’re being sold a non-story by people who are more interested in fattening the bottom line than offering perspective.