Media idiocy

One of the BBC top stories right now: “Mobile phone risk during storms.” I am not going to link it, because they don’t deserve traffic for publishing something so asinine. The crux of the article is that people who get struck by lightning while using a metal mobile phone are more likely to be injured than people just standing there. The article doesn’t indicate that your chances of getting struck by lightning while talking on the phone are any higher. Indeed, I would posit that you would be less likely to be standing around outside in a thunderstorm if you had your expensive and almost certainly non-waterproof mobile phone pressed against your ear. And whose mobile phone is made of metal anyhow?

According to scientist Paul Taylor: “I would treat a mobile phone as yet another piece of metal that people tend to carry on their persons like coins and rings.” Do they advise not wearing rings or carrying change during thunderstorms? Of course not. That would be absurd.

Sometimes, the enthusiasm of the media to scare people on the basis of incredibly improbable events is so frustrating I don’t know what to do. They would have you believe that strangers will poison your child’s Halloween candy (all known cases of poisoning by this route were committed by the parents of the child). Everything from shark attacks to terrorist incidents gets presented as far more common than they really are, in a world of six billion with a media likely to report every incident of each. A really brilliant essay by Jack Gordon on this kind of fear-mongering can be found here. The best paragraph reads:

It is fashionable to remark that America “lost its innocence” on September 11th. This is balderdash. Our innocence is too deep and intractable for that. The thing we’ve really lost doesn’t even deserve the name of bravery. We’ve lost the ability to come to grips with the simple fact that life is not a safe proposition—that life will kill us all by and by, regardless. And as a society, we’ve just about lost the sense that until life does kill us, there are values aside from brute longevity that can shape the way we choose to live.

This essay won a contest by Shell and The Economist on the topic “How much liberty should we trade for security.” It is well worth a look; it’s enormously more deserving, I would say, than the BBC article of comparable length. The basic point: we need to acknowledge the existence of risk and deal with it intelligently. We can never be perfectly safe, and we shouldn’t try to be. We can never do otherwise than balance risks against benefits.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “Media idiocy”

  1. According to the article:

    “Children particularly won’t realise the risk… Dr Esprit said mobile phone manufacturers should warn consumers of the dangers.”

    What about umbrella manufacturers? Surely they will be the next people up for a drubbing from the British Medical Association.

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