False Alarms

By Michael Fumento

Forbes Media Critic, Fall 1994
Copyright 1994 Forbes Media Critic

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From the pit-bull scare to the mysterious Gulf War syndrome, why does the media's version of events sometimes differ so much from reality? The answer lies less in reportorial bias than in the abandonment of reason and a failure fully to investigate.


What do missing children, women with silicone breast implants, heterosexuals with AIDS, Florida tourists, and Gulf War veterans have in common? More than you might think. A media feeding frenzy catapulted each of these issues into the national spotlight. More importantly, not one of them deserved the alarming coverage it received.

Perception:

In the early 1980s, a wave of child kidnappings swept the country. Parents locked up their kids, fingerprinted them, and in extreme cases fitted them with tracking devices. USA Today, in one of a series of emotionally wrenching editorials, informed its readers that "strangers steal as many as 20,000 children a year." Opinion writers asked, "How could it happen?" Newsweek, in a March 19, 1984 article, wrote of "6,000 to 50,000 missing children [who are] presumed victims of ’stranger abduction,’ a crime of predatory cruelty usually committed by pedophiles, pornographers, black-market baby peddlers or childless psychotics bidding desperately for parenthood." U.S. News & World Report wrote in 1983 of 20,000 to 50,000 children "snatched by strangers — most never to be seen again."

Reality:

It is an understatement to say these number were inflated. USA Today in a later editorial admitted "the media magnified the story. Broadcast, articles, and editorials, including some in USA Today, reported the scary statistics... Now we know those numbers were probably wrong. There aren’t that many children kidnapped by strangers. The National Center for Missing Children says there are between 4,000 and 20,000. Child Find in New York has lowered its annual estimate to 600. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says that in 1984 there were only 67."

Perception:

In the late 1980s, AIDS broke out from the high-risk groups into the general population. All three national newsweeklies devoted covers to this phenomenon, with U.S. News & World Report declaring, "The disease of them suddenly is the disease of us." Life screamed out: "NOW NO ONE IS SAFE FROM AIDS."

Reality:

By the end of 1992, out of 253,448 active AIDS cases reported in the U.S. since 1981, 16,254 had been identified as heterosexual transmissions. Most of the original 1986 scare stories relied on apples-to-oranges comparisons that occurred when the CDC added Haitians and Africans to the heterosexual category, literally doubling it overnight. Yes, the percentage of AIDS cases among heterosexuals has increased recently, but, as of the end of 1992, the more than 90 percent of the population that is neither male-homosexual nor injects drugs comprised at most seven percent of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. (The data on those who have tested HIV-positive could alter these statistics, but because that data are incomplete, it is impossible to project their impact.)

Perception:

The fall of 1993 became open season on Florida tourists. "Come to Sunny Florida and Be Murdered for Absolutely Nothing!" screamed one British tabloid. "Slaughter in the Sunshine" screeched another. U.S. News seized the opportunity to do a cover story: "Paradise Lost: The Sharp Decline of the Sunshine State."

Reality:

While no data on crimes specifically involving foreign tourists or U.S. tourists are available, non-resident homicides in Florida as a percentage of the total have declined from four years ago. At the same time, Florida’s overall murder rate compared to the national average has fallen significantly. In 1987, the state’s murder rate was 27 percent above the national average. It has steadily declined since then and is now 4.5 percent below the national average.

Perception:

Gulf War syndrome, probably the result of exposure to enemy weapons, has caused a rash of disease among thousands of veterans. "Trail of Symptoms Suggests Chem-arms," ran a 1993 headline in USA Today. In September of that same year, the Chicago Tribune blared "Gulf War Vets Show Signs of Toxic Gas Exposure." A few months later the Buffalo News told readers of "Desert Storm’s Legacy of Pain." Miscarriages among veterans’ wives have also been extraordinarily high, according to some press reports.

Reality:

One study of Gulf War veterans found their rate of illness to be no higher than would be expected among the same number of non-veterans in the same age group. A second study found miscarriages at Army bases no higher after the Gulf deployment. And a committee sponsored by the Department of Defense and chaired by Nobel Laureaute Joshua Lederberg found "Insufficient epidemiological evidence to support any coherent syndrome."

Why does the press version of events differ so much from reality? Hyped versions of reality appear to result from recurring patterns and pitfalls into which reporters fall. While much has been written about the media’s political slant, the abandonment of reason and sometimes ethics in pursuit of a hot story also plays a role.

"Sometimes in our eagerness to sell magazines or get people to watch, we close off parts of our brains," says ABC News reporter John Stossel, who broke with journalistic tradition in April when he presented the ABC News special "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" The purpose of the show was to debunk hype concerning violent-crime rates and myriad environmental and health scares. Like a modern-day Saint Augustine, Stossel says he understands the temptation to play the alarmist because he used to succumb to such temptation on a regular basis. The show featured a montage of clips with a younger Stossel proclaiming disaster was imminent.

"If the sky is falling, that’s interesting; if it isn’t, no one is going to buy your magazine," says Stossel. "But that’s still no excuse for not putting the risks in perspective." He says his main failure as a journalist was not taking the time to fully investigate the issues. "It wasn’t until I started to compile what really kills people and put them on bar graphs that I saw how insane it was to highlight each risk. It’s a big country and once you start to see how many people are killed by bathtubs, it’s hard to see why we should worry about Bic lighters exploding, which was a story I refused to do though somebody else did it. On the other hand, when you hear about the Bic lighters exploding you’re moved and want to help people."

But the consequences of media hype can be devastating, distracting individuals and leaders in the public and private sectors from important problems and leading to the misallocation of funds. A million dollars spent to combat a relatively small problem is a million that can’t be spent on one that is potentially more widespread. The growing number of media "epidemics" has also led to a culture of paranoia, where each week individuals are advised to fear and avoid the latest behavior, place, or product showcased on the nightly news or neighborhood newsstand.

What’s Normal?

Everybody dies, everybody gets sick, every city and state has murders, every year crimes are committed. Reporters know this. Yet, in the heat of reporting a story, they often forget it. Instead, one person’s tale of woe takes on epidemic proportions. Thus, a child tragically disappears and child kidnappings are said to be on the rise. A Florida tourist is gunned down and the Sunshine State becomes known as a murder capital.

Epidemics are the occurrence of something at a level significantly higher than normal. To declare a disease epidemic, health officials must have some idea of the normal level for that disease. Ten cases of dysentery in a month is hardly a public emergency if the normal rate is 12. Likewise, reporters, before writing about a "surge" of this or an "explosion" of that, should convey the previous level to news consumers. Most media-created epidemics involve oft-repeated stories where background rates are simply ignored.

Stories linking Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed on South Vietnamese jungles during the war, to disease were devoid of data providing background rates of those diseases. (While Agent Orange makers settled a class-action suit with war veterans, they have steadfastly maintained that they did so purely as a matter of expedience.) Readers were never reminded that diseases such as lymphoma and testicular cancer occur in non-veterans as well as veterans, and that these diseases, when the media first began linking them to Agent Orange, were the most common cancers among men in the age category of the veterans covered in the news reports.

The existence of the Gulf War syndrome epidemic relies for the most part on the testimony of individual soldiers. The Los Angeles Times, for example, noted the poignant congressional testimony of Mike Land, who was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes after he came back from the Gulf. It also related the story of a woman whose son had developed cancer of the heart, lungs, spleen, kidney, and brain and died 11 months after he came home from Saudi Arabia. What the Los Angeles Times did not tell readers was that out of 700,000 people — the approximate number of Gulf War veterans — cases of virtually every known disease can be found. Land, for example, was 29 at the time. While cancer is relatively rare at that age, it is hardly unheard of, According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 1,000 men between the ages of 25 and 29 died of cancer in this country in 1991. This is not to say that no veterans were exposed to agents capable of causing disease. Indeed, a few dozen soldiers were exposed to illness through a parasite. But to make the link between disease and the Gulf War without recognizing normal rates of illness is more than slightly misleading.

Stories on the Florida tourist killings seemed to carry two presumptions. First, foreign tourists had hitherto been essentially immune from murder. Second, foreign tourists were only at risk in Florida. None of the stories ever made these points directly, but they were implicit. Yet the data indicated that the risk of a foreign tourist being killed was probably as small as ever. Further, no comparative data were available for other tourist destinations. For all anyone knew, per capita tourist deaths were twice as high in California as they were in Florida. Florida got zapped because somebody started keeping track there.

Anecdotal Evidence

All media-created epidemics rely heavily on anecdotes and personal experiences to make up for their lack of statistical data. In place of data on heterosexual AIDS, the media jumped on Magic Johnson’s revelation in 1991 that he contracted the virus as if Johnson’s case somehow changed the statistical evidence.

CNN grabbed the Johnson story to tell viewers now "anyone can get AIDS." Newsday’s November 10, 1991 sub-headline blared "Everyone’s in Danger." On December 15, 1991 The Houston Post ran a reprinted article entitled, "Virus Sends Sober Call to America; Heterosexual Threat Is Serious." Gannett News Service used Johnson’s announcement in a year-end story, "1991: The Year AIDS Hit Heterosexual Fears," even though four years earlier all three major newsmagazines and The Atlantic had devoted covers to the subject.

Newsweek plastered a huge blow-up of a condom on its cover. One Los Angeles television station ran five straight nights of special broadcasts about the alleged heterosexual AIDS epidemic. No matter how powerful the Johnson anecdote, the number of heterosexuals with AIDS had not jumped dramatically the week of his announcement. It was Johnson’s celebrity status, not statistical evidence, that drove the coverage. The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz was one of the few journalists to take the media to task for their handling of the story. On November 18, 1991, she wrote that "the real lesson likely to emerge from this entire event has little to do with Magic Johnson and the HIV virus. More of an exhibition than a lesson, really, this event showed — not for the first time but with, in this case, extraordinary clarity — the making of a media-created phenomenon."

Media-inspired fear over silicone breast implants has also resulted primarily from anecdotal evidence. Reporters employed a simple fallacy (post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or after this, therefore because of this) to link any number of ailments to these implants, even when the only demonstrable connection was the fact that the ailment arose at some point in time after the implant operation.

Most of the complaints alleged that the implants had caused autoimmune illness. "Silicone Breast Implants; a Lingering Ordeal," ran the September 20, 1992 headline in the St. Petersburg Times. The San Francisco Examiner told its readers "After Breast Implant, Horror Began." More chilling yet was The Boston Globe’s January 30, 1992 story, "Implants: Two Women’s Stories; I Felt Like I Was Walking Around with Enemies Inside Myself." The Globe would later report on a woman who sliced her breast open with a scalpel to get at her implant.

Major studies have found no connection between implants and autoimmune illness. Indeed, the jury is still very much out on the dangers of silicone breast implants. A study at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston found no higher level of such disease among implant recipients than among women who had undergone breast reconstruction with their own tissue. And University of Toronto researchers evaluating 200 women with implants have found no evidence of a link to autoimmune disease.

The New York Times, which gave plenty of front-page play to the initial breast implant scare, buried on page A-18 an important June 16, 1994 article entitled "Study Finds No Implant-Disease Links," by Gina Kolata. The report detailed a Mayo Clinic study conducted between 1964 and 1991 of 749 women with breast implants and 1,498 women without them. The study found no increased risk of connective-tissue disease following an implant. Also cited in Kolata’s piece was an editorial by Dr. Marcia Angell, the executive editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, which published the findings of the Mayo Clinic study.

Angell’s message was a powerful indictment of press coverage of the breast implant controversy: "The accumulated weight of anecdotes was taken by judges and juries as tantamount to proof of causation. Multimillion dollar settlements followed, along with poignant stories in the media and appearances by plaintiffs on talk shows. All this added to the weight of the anecdotes, which in a circular way became accepted by the courts and the public as nearly incontrovertible evidence."

While a Food and Drug Administration ruling on breast implants allows for continued use of silicone implants for women who have had mastectomies and women who wish to participate in controlled studies, the media-spread fear of silicone has forced many U.S. manfacturers of silicone implants to stop producing them. Regardless of future scientific findings, those American women who prefer silicone implants instead of saline ones may not have access to them. Further, many of the nearly two million American women who already have silicone implants will live in terror that they have become the "ticking time bombs" described in so many news reports.

The Agent Orange scare also relied heavily on a couple of Magic Johnson-like anecdotes such as that of Elmo R. Zumwalt III, the son of the admiral who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange along South Vietnamese waterways. The irony was irresistible.

When the CDC conducted a congressionally mandated study comparing Vietnam veterans’ concerns to those of persons who had remained in the United States, the only difference it found was for one type of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and that was only among sailors in the blue-water navy, who could not possibly have been exposed to Agent Orange.

A study of the servicemen who actually handled Agent Orange, and thus received by far the highest exposure, found the same cancer rate as unexposed persons. These studies were essentially ignored by the media while a 1993 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, which found enough evidence of association to link Agent Orange to some types of cancer, was widely covered. But the NAB report downplayed the actual Agent Orange studies, instead focusing on studies of Swedish forestry workers who applied various herbicides, none of which was the same as Agent Orange.

But the issue here is not whether Agent Orange causes cancer or not, merely that the use of high-profile anecdotes, while a great tool for advocacy and maybe for selling papers or raising ratings, does nothing to contribute to an understanding of whether this chemical is actually dangerous. The "epidemic" of health problems at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, begun by a single enterprising reporter at The Niagara Falls Gazette in 1978 and perpetuated by The New York Times, featured a celebrity family, the Quimbys, who were all sick, albeit with what seemed to be unrelated illnesses. Even the dog, Pugsley, had unexplained vomiting. Suddenly they became more popular than the Bunkers or the Jeffersons, with appearances in Time, Maclean’s and U.S. News & World Report, among other news outlets. Pugsley became the only dog since Old Yeller to make sickness his greatest claim to fame.

But linking the Quimbys’ health problems to Love Canal was an exercise in fiction writing. Repeated studies conducted both by the CDC and the New York State Department of Health found no statistically significant increases of disease at Love Canal. As The New York Times conceded in a 1981 editorial, "Love Canal, perhaps the nation’s most prominent symbol of chemical assaults on the environment, has had no detectable effect on the incidence of cancer. When all the returns are in, years from now, it may well turn out that the public suffered less from the chemicals there than from the hysteria generated by flimsy research irresponsibly handled."

Numerous studies have found nothing wrong with Love Canal residents. Despite earlier claims, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) panel found no chromosome abnormalities in Canal residents, a point reiterated in a later CDC report. The New York State Department of Health said blood testing for liver and kidney abnormalities and other blood diseases "showed no patterns of excess abnormality." Health questionnaires, the Department said, "produced no evidence of unusual patterns of illness or other disorders. Cancer incidence was within normal limits." Today, families are moving back into the Love Canal area.

Victims as Experts

Not only do all media-created epidemics have anecdotal evidence in common, but the anecdotes themselves share similarities. They almost always contain sympathetic characters. These characters are allowed to establish causes for their ailments without challenge from the scientific community. The story goes, I served in Vietnam, and Agent Orange was sprayed there. I have cancer, or my child has a birth defect, and therefore Agent Orange caused the problem. Or, I served in the Persian Gulf, I now have persistent joint pains, therefore something in the Gulf caused my pains. One Gulf War veteran said his wife had joint pains because of something he was exposed to in the Gulf. His tale was dutifully reported by the Los Angeles Times and a number of other news outlets.

Such linkages are questionable because too little time has passed. Most adult cancers for which a cause is known take decades to develop. According to Lawrence Garfinkel, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, "for most environmental exposures scientists talk about a 20-year wait before cancers develop to a point where they cause symptoms." (There are exceptions, he says, especially with childhood cancer.) The cancer cases attributed to materials in the Persian Gulf, however, had at most a couple of years to develop. The case the Los Angeles Times highlighted involved an interval of only 11 months.

Army Assistant Surgeon General Virginia Stephanakis told the story of a soldier who had just arrived in Saudi Arabia when he was diagnosed with a terminal case of lymphoma. "He had rectal bleeding six days after arriving and the family blamed it on the Gulf," she says somewhat incredulously.

Surely reporters are aware that cancer has a lag time. Why did they ignore this obvious point during coverage of such stories as the Gulf War syndrome? And why does the press herald the anecdote at the expense of available scientific evidence? It is doubtful that a Los Angeles Times or USA Today reporter would assume someone with Hodgkin’s disease was an expert in cutting-edge cancer therapies, even if that person had undergone one. Why then is such a person considered an expert source on how the disease is contracted? Reporters would not insist that anyone who has ever had dialysis is necessarily an expert in the causes of kidney disease or that anyone with angina is knowledgeable about the causes of heart disease.

Editors and producers obviously think the anecdote is more interesting than statistics. At the same time, however, reporters are not adverse to using statistics to create epidemics even when their data are laughably wrong. Why, for example, were news consumers continually told that as many as 50,000 children were kidnapped by strangers each year when the number was really much smaller? The media feeding frenzy surrounding the creation of a news event of epidemic proportions blurs reporters’ common sense.

If the media can create the appearance of an epidemic by highlighting certain individual cases, it can also do so by highlighting individual experts or pseudo-experts and ignoring others. Last year, Dr. Edward Young, director of the Houston V.A. Medical Center and head of a special referral center set up to treat ailing Gulf War veterans, told The Birmingham News, "It really rankles me when people stand up and call it ’Persian Gulf syndrome.’ To honor this thing with some name is ridiculous .... We’re talking people who have multiple complaints. And if you go out on the street in any city in this country, you’ll find people who have exactly the same things, and they’ve never been in the Persian Gulf."

For his trouble, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs relieved Young of his duties as head of the Persian Gulf Referral Center. If you didn’t read The Birminghamham News, you probably weren’t aware of this perspective because the rest of the national press corps ignored it. On the other hand, when another V.A. doctor, Charles Jackson of the Tuskegee V.A. Medical Center, announced his belief that Gulf War syndrome was the result of Iraqi nerve agents, he made headlines. Nexis located him 21 times, including a mention in USA Today’s "Trail of Symptoms Suggests Chem-arms."

Activists as Experts

Most media-created epidemics share another common feature — a political element. It is increasingly common now to hear AIDS activists admit that, yes, there has been intentional exaggeration of the threat of AIDS to the general population because exaggeration was necessary to promote not only sympathy for AIDS victims but to force the government to spend more for research and treatment. As one writer put it in 1993 in a Washington, D.C. newspaper for the homosexual community; "I’ve had it up to the top of my well-above-ground-level ears with the leaders in the AIDS community who insist that the only way to get the attention of the power establishment is to convince them that this disease is going to infect those in power or people just like them."

Also last year, playwright Larry Kramer, perhaps the nation’s best-known AIDS activist, told Playboy magazine that through "benign neglect, 41 cases [of AIDS] have become a billion cases." When Playboy replied, "That dwarfs any number we’ve heard," Kramer said, "Frankly, I use the highest figure I can because it scares ... people and helps my argument. "

According to Army Assistant Surgeon General Stephanakis, a Fort Bragg, North Carolina group called Military Family Support Network, which had opposed deployment to the Gulf, spread the rumor that Gulf veterans’ wives were suffering disproportionately from miscarriages.

Sometimes activists are identified as such; often they are not. New York magazine, in a short item about the re-release of my book, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, claimed that "a book on AIDS has medical professionals in an uproar," but the sole "medical professional" quoted was Mervyn Silverman. Silverman is an M.D. and the former health commissioner for San Francisco, which gives him a certain credibility. But, as the article stated, he is also the chairman of an AIDS lobbying group, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Other sources should have been included to balance Silverman’s perspective.

It also appears that a single famous activist was responsible for the figure of 50,000 children abducted by strangers. John Walsh, whose son Adam was kidnapped from his South Florida home and later found dead, said he arrived at the number "after contacting and speaking with" representatives of various missing children organizations around the country. Today, Walsh is better known to us as the host of Fox television’s America’s Most Wanted.

Activism may also have played a part in the Florida tourist killing "spree." With Florida’s liberalized gun-possession statute and the Clinton administration’s lobbying for the Brady guncontrol bill, some articles devoted as many words to gun control as they did to the actual tourist murders. On September 29, 1993, three-quarters of a USA Today article supposedly about the Florida murders discussed guncontrol initiatives: "In the Miami area-where six tourist slayings occurred-City Manager Cesar Odio is pushing to bar anyone except police officers from having a gun outside the home."

Nowhere, however, could one read or hear that when the liberalized statute went into effect in 1987, Florida murders were 27 percent higher than the national average and rising. Nor were readers told that since then the rate has steadily dropped to less than the national average. To those for whom restricting access to guns is necessarily a good thing, facts such as these are quite inconvenient.

Certainly it is important to convey the arguments of those groups that do not approve of handguns. And it is important to know why ACT-UP believes the nation hasn’t spent enough money on AIDS. But activists need to be seen for what they are: salespeople. As ABC’s Stossel puts it, "It does not occur to some reporters that the activist group is desperate for fame and grant money." For jouralists to assume unbiased expertise from a representative of any lobbying group established to promote a particular perspective is irresponsible.

The Pit-Bull Scare

"Dangerous? Sure. But I only bite sensationalist reporters!"

Often news outlets hype a story by playing up an old problem. For example, every year dogs kill a handful of people. As a rule, serious dog attacks only make the local papers. But what happens when a reporter at a national paper or television station ties together a couple of local notices? In 1986, the result was the pit-bull scare.

Probably as a result of a widely shown film clip of a pit-bull attacking an animal control officer in California, the media began running stories about attacks by these medium-sized dogs of extremely tenacious character. More fatal pit-bull attacks did occur around this time than there had been previously, but dog-bite fatalities in general are extremely rare (about a dozen a year for all breeds according to the Humane Society, or as many as 18 to 20 according to the CDC), as are pit-bull bites. No matter; suddenly pit bulls had their incisors firmly clamped into the news.

Nexis searches in both 1983 and 1984 found 31 reports in each year of pit-bulls attacking or biting someone. That number crept up to 70 the next year and 115 the next, then exploded to 530 in 1987. Television cameras were on the scene quickly after each pit-bull attack anywhere in the country. Dog attacks committed by any breed were now called pit-bull attacks. Pit bulls became the featured attraction of television news shows like Nightline. Dan Rather on The CBS Evening News quoted "one expert" who called them "canine crocodiles." I was working at a newspaper at the time, and rarely did a day go by without a blurb on the wire describing the latest clash of man and dog. City councils rushed to ban the ostensibly vicious canines. Neighbors who owned the animals were threatened — albeit from a careful distance.

So intense was the competition to show the public the horrible nature of pit bulls that Wendy Bergen, an award-winning anchorwoman at Denver’s KCNC, staged a pit-bull fight, then mailed a video of the fight to herself and showed it on the air as if it had come from an anonymous source. She was convicted of three felonies, including staging a dog fight, and fined $20,000.

But as the Kingston Trio might ask, "Where have all the pit bulls gone?" They’re still there and have yet to take a vow of non-violence. News consumers simply don’t hear of their rare attacks because the press has finally tired of the story and moved on.

Florida Feeding Frenzy

Heaven help the victim of a media feeding frenzy. Ask the Department of Tourism for the state of Florida. In the case of the Florida tourist-killing epidemic there was a clear genesis: the brutal death of a German woman run down by robbers in front of her own family. That this incident made national news is hardy surprising. What did come as an unpleastant surprise to Floridians were the ripples the story created. Thereafter, every attack against a foreign tourist, which in previous years would have been mentioned only in local newspapers, was the stuff of national and even international news.

The frenzy became such that when an American tourist visiting the state suffered a minor wound from a mugger’s wife, CNN included it in its Headline News. The media frenzy in Florida had its own version of the Denver pit-bull story when the British newspapers the Daily Star and The Sun quoted The Miami Herald as saying, "There are places in the world where tourists should not go if they wish to stay alive. Florida tops the list."

It was a damning self-condemnation coming from Florida’s biggest and most prestigious newspaper — or would have been if it were true. But Miami Herald employees insist no such comment ever appeared in the paper’s pages. They even ran a computer database search to confirm it. Apparently, the quote first appeared in The Sun and was later copied by the Daily Star. So I called the Sun reporter and told her what Herald employees had told me. Her response: perhaps the Miami Herald didn’t say it, but surely somebody had, or she wouldn’t have written it.

Few reporters’ acts are as unconscionable as this, but a simple slip during an epidemic feeding frenzy can have devastating consequences. Consider another incident in the Florida siege. The British National Safety Council, a nongovernmental but highly respected body, advised Britons to "avoid Florida like the plague." It also demanded that the nation’s Foreign Office advise Britons not to travel to the state. While the Foreign Office didn’t follow through, it did (along with the German government) issue travel advice for tourists going to Florida, while doing so for no other state.

This in turn had a devastating effect on British tourism to the Sunshine State. Although British tourism to Florida almost quadrupled from 1987 to 1992, it eked up only 5.3 percent last year. Germany experienced a similar trend — though German tourism had almost tripled from 1987 to 1992, it increased only .3 percent in 1993. Tourist officials note that at that time Germany was mired in a recession and the Deutschemark was weak against the dollar, but they expressed no doubt that the bad publicity was a major factor. In explaining the Safety Council’s position, Marianne Hahn, formerly the group’s senior press officer, said, "What was becoming apparent was that obviously crime per se against tourists everywhere [in the United States] is high but increasing in Florida, as I’m sure you’re aware. In 1991, 35,000 tourists were either mugged, raped, or robbed in Florida and since then it has gone up."

A spokesman for the Foreign Office cited the same statistic. But the 35,000 figure represents all visitors to the state, tourists or otherwise, and it represents all crimes, 85 percent of which were non-violent and against property only.

Apparently, rather than contacting the state of Florida or the FBI, the Safety Council and the Foreign Office took their incorrect data from a London newspaper, The Daily Mail, which had earlier presented this incorrect information to its readers.

Untruth and Consequences

What is the upshot of all this? While journalism often has consequences both good and bad, rarely are those consequences so clearly bad as when unnecessary hysteria is created. Ask the people in Florida’s devastated tourist industry. Ask the war veterans who are terrified every time they find a new bump, blemish, or rash on their skin. Whether or not media hype has been good for boosting ratings and circulation, it has been bad for the integrity of the news business and for those who turn to the media for an accurate account of what’s going on in the world.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the media and on innaccuracies with numbers.