Saturday, January 16, 2010

This Is How the Media Amplify Our Terrorism Fears

This Is How the Media Amplify Our Terrorism Fears

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I'm going to run the risk of a take-down order from an AP lawyer and reprint this entire (brief) story so you can see just how Onion-ish it is:

TSA: Unruly Northwest Flight Passengers Questioned

ROMULUS, Mich. -- The Transportation Security Administration says unruly passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit were interviewed by Customs and Border Protection officials after the plane landed.

But the TSA says the passengers were released and no arrests were made.

Air Lines spokeswoman Susan Elliott says the crew of Northwest Flight 243 requested that authorities meet the plane Tuesday after it landed because four passengers didn't follow their instructions. She says nobody was injured but wouldn't describe what the passengers were doing.

Tuesday's disturbance comes less than a week after a Nigerian man pleaded not guilty to trying to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam as it was preparing to land in Detroit on Christmas.

Got that? Some people were "unruly" -- didn't jump when the flight attendant told them to? -- and cops asked 'em a couple of questions. Without knowing the details, it'd be a safe bet that this was a case of drunken obnoxiousness, just like the overwhelming majority of passenger disturbances. They weren't arrested, the terminal wasn't locked down, flights weren't backed up -- that's the whole story.

This almost could have been headlined, "BREAKING TERROR NEWS: Amsterdam-Detroit Flight Arrives Without Incident!"

I'm on a deadline and don't have time for more than a quick point here. And that is: people don't evaluate risk in any rational way -- they don't base their sense of danger on the actual statistical likelihood of being harmed by a given activity.

There are 2-pack-a-day smokers who are absolutely terrified of dying in a terror attack, which is less likely than being killed by lightning (for Americans). Many people ignore routine maintenance on their cars and then brave the daily commute to work without a second thought but are scared shitless about super-safe commercial air-travel. That kind of thing.

Risk-perception is influenced by many factors, and one of them is "media amplification."

When the AP reports every hiccup a drunk passenger has on an airplane, and in so doing reminds people that it's been "less than a week [since] a Nigerian man pleaded not guilty to trying to blow up a Northwest flight," it only amplifies people's perception of the threat. It's certainly not "news."

PS: that link above leads to the AP story on Fox News, but never fear: Talking-Points Memo is on the case too.

Update: That's just the professional media. The right-bloggers are going nuts over this story, claiming that these passengers were al Qaeda operatives on a "dry run." Hilarious.

Update: Ok, look at this CNN story about a fork-lift operator accidentally puncturing a container full of high explosives as it was being loaded at a North Carolina seaport. It doesn't seem to be anything more than an industrial accident (albeit a very dangerous one, according to the report):

[A port official] said the people who transport "any highly flammable explosive devices" have to and did notify the port and local emergency and police officials. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil said the substance has industrial and medical uses.

"Being an international port, we handle highly flammable explosive material all the time. Jet fuel comes through here all the time, gasoline, propane. So it's not unusual to have explosive material coming through Morehead City," he said.

Those two paragraphs come at the very end of the piece, and are the only indication that this story, however scary, probably has nothing to do with national security.

But long before that, the journo who penned the article thought it necessary to tell us the following trivia about the explosive substance in the container -- not once, but twice:

PETN was allegedly one of the components of the bomb concealed by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, accused of trying to set off an explosion aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit, Michigan, on December 25.

That was right at the top. Then, further down ...

Jones confirmed that the material in the containers is PETN, allegedly one of the components of the bomb concealed by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, accused of trying to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Amsterdam on December 25.

I hear he was also wearing undies at the time, but it'd be weird if I thought about airplanes exploding in midair every time I pulled a pair of boxers on in the morning.

This is why terrorism is such an effective tactic: even if you fail miserably with your attack, the media will do your work for you -- the terrorizing, not the killing -- for weeks and months to come.

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