Do the Media Lead us to Fear Terrorists Too Little—or Too Much?

Speaking to military personnel on February 6th, President Trump lamented that terrorist attacks are “not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.” The implication was that opposition to his seven-country immigration ban arises from our being insufficiently aware and fearful of the terrorism threat.

Or, we might ask, are we instead too afraid of terrorism? In 2015 and again in 2016, feared Islamic terrorists (none from the seven countries) shot and killed fewer Americans than did armed toddlers (see here and here). Homicidal, suicidal, and accidental death by guns claim more than 30,000 American deaths each year.

After vivid media portrayals of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, 27 percent of Americans identified terrorism as their biggest worry. In two national surveys (here and here), terrorism topped the list of “most important” issues facing the country.

Ergo, does the evidence not compel us to conclude that we are, thanks to the hijacking of our emotions by vividly available images, too much afraid of terrorism . . . and too little afraid of much greater perils? And might we instead fault the media for leaving us too unafraid of the future’s great weapon of mass destruction—climate change?

Are some prominent voices today, as in George Orwell’s 1984, seeking to control us by manipulating our fears? To me, George Gerbner’s cautionary words to a 1981 congressional subcommittee seem prescient:

Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures.