Monday, April 13, 2009

Keeping kids safe involves more than warning about guns

If ABC were really trying to make sure kids are playing in a safe environment, they'd be urging parents to ask if cars, water, stairs, ladders, matches, or household cleaners were present in the home before arranging playdates. All have higher death rates for kids than firearms.

This sort of "advocacy journalism" is often suspicious for what is not said. Often, when folks talk about the media's bias for a given position, they are talking about this very thing, where context is stripped from the topic and it appears that the viewer or reader needs to become alarmed. When context is added, suddenly the story appears ho-hum.

For example, an often cited statistic is that smoking cigarettes doubles your chances of contracting lung cancer. After reading that several times, it is easy to become convinced that if you continue smoking you will definitely die of lung cancer. The facts in context say that everyone has a 7.5% chance of contracting lung cancer, whether you smoke or not. Double that, means a 15% chance. Not good, clearly, but the fact is that you have an 85% chance that something else will eventually kill you. Most smokers, in fact, die some other way. Stated with context, the decision to smoke becomes one of an individual making choices, armed with the best information available.

But at the same time, the second article with context really doesn't grab readers attention so much. "Advocacy journalism" is fine as a way to grab readers, and as long as it is labeled as such. The problem is when such advocacy becomes the basis for public policy. In the case of smoking, laws have been put in place across the country outlawing smoking in the name of protecting people from so called "second hand smoke." It turns out that the second hand smoke argument is even more specious. Both the World Health Organization and the EPA have tried to prove, with some pretty massive studies that second hand smoke increases lung cancer deaths. The truth is they have been unable to do so without compromising their own criteria. Had this been reported truthfully, public policy would probably still be what it was in the 60s.
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