A Little Fear is Healthy, Right? Wrong.

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

A couple of my neighbours work in public health policy. She researches disease epidemics; he studies addictions.

All three of us have good relationships with serious, informed, responsible media reporters. And we all share a common problem with the media when they aren’t so professional.

When some reporters call our offices, it’s clear what they’re after: The scary sound-bite. They want a few words, however out of context, that they can use to alarm readers about a fast-growing threat from that new virus, that new designer drug, or that remotely-possible accident or emission.

 

There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them. – Andre Gide

To him who is in fear, everything rustles. – Sophocles

 

We share the experience of  spending a quarter or half hour giving thoughtful, calibrated answers that don’t get taken up because they don’t ring alarm bells. Instead, our least guarded phrase or our least discreet word is what’s most likely to make it into the media.

The next day we read, hear or see “news” that’s little more than pure fear-mongering. We experience media “coverage” of epidemics that barely (or never) materialize, drug plagues that are exaggerated, and radiation dangers that don’t exist.

This doesn’t just affect us personally, through the frustration of seeing our knowledge dumbed down and distorted. It affects us as members of a society in which the information that reaches all of us is tilted toward fear.

 

To him who is in fear, everything rustles. – Sophocles

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin Roosevelt

There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. – Michel de Montaigne

 

As a result, citizens demand solutions to fake threats. Those demands are put before governments and companies — often by the same reporters who trumped up the fake threats in the first place.

Governments and companies, even when they know better, have to placate people, so they devote resources to these “solutions” to fake threats. And every year, society throws attention and resources – flu shots, tests, treatments, dietary changes, and pills that do negligible good – at things that only matter because we were briefly made to fear them.

The trouble with this is that fewer precious resources are left for real threats. I, my neighbours, our colleagues and our organizations are left with lower capacity to reduce risks that might actually matter in a measurable and demonstrable way. Society ends up with fewer real solutions to real problems, and we are much worse off as a result.

 

Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself. – Samuel Butler

The first duty of man is to conquer fear. – Thomas Carlyle

 

Fear is a lousy basis for making decisions. Fear-based decisions nearly always involve more sacrifice than benefit. Fear-based decisions are decisions against something, rather than decisions toward something, so we don’t pursue our real values. And they lead to inconsistency, because we’re likely to jump in a completely different direction next time we’re afraid.

This is why great leaders tell us over and over that we must not be governed by fear (or anger). Yet large parts of our society’s information-gathering media seek out, and thrive on, fear (and anger).

Because fear is based in ignorance, its defeat begins with the responsibility to inform ourselves. And that continues well after we’ve heard from the reporters.

Want to start? Next time a news item containing the word “nuclear” tries to push your panic buttons:

  • Resist fear.
  • Inquire. Look for the factual (as opposed to emotional or opinion-only) content in the news coverage. Some of it should be from independent and informed sources.
  • Read further. Take three to ten minutes to research the topic more deeply from credible experts. We can help you get started at www.cna.ca.
  • If you don’t think an item is delivering fair and informative content, demand better. Use the news organization’s website to ask for balanced, informative coverage.

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