Is the Modern World More Violent?

Or is it journalism that is red in tooth and claw?

Posted Jun 30, 2015

If it bleeds, it leads is a truism of news coverage. We all sympathize with the victims of senseless violence, and their families, because we know that it could have been us, and our families. Yet, our world has never been less violent – except in news media and entertainment.

This journalistic bias has two adverse effects. First, it makes news junkies worry unduly. Second, it encourages rampage killers by giving them instant “celebrity.”

Media coverage exploits our sympathy, and empathy, for victims elevating our sense of danger out of proportion to the actual threat. Of course, it also feeds on the shock of seemingly safe places being violated, such as churches

Belief in a Violent World

Whereas the world is a lot less violent today than at any other time of history, or prehistory, that fact escapes us thanks to our daily diet of journalistic carnage. The worldwide probability of dying in a terrorist attack is infinitesimal at less than one in a million per year (1). This risk is about three times lower than it was in the 1980's. Yet, respondents to surveys believe that the risk has gone up (2), a phenomenon that can be attributed to extensive coverage of spectacular terrorist attacks, such as the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, 2001.

A similar point can be made about fear of violent crime. Homicide rates in Western Europe today are only about a fortieth of what they were in the 14th century (1). Homicide rates in the U.S. are about four times higher than in Europe but they are substantially lower than during the colonial period. Moreover, homicide rates today are only around half what they were in 1990, a point that is easily missed if one likes to watch the TV news.

Exaggerated fear of crime and terrorism can have very damaging consequences for our health and well being. If we fear flying to some destination because of terrorism and choose to drive instead, our risk of dying is greatly increased because flying is much safer than driving (2). Similarly, exaggerated fear of violent crime can inhibit walking and exercise, with very damaging health consequences. Of course, such fears contribute to clinical anxiety and depression. More balanced journalism can thus save lives and contribute to happiness. As it is, the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” approach may actually contribute to the worst acts of violence.

Reinforcing Appalling Violence

One of the biggest problems about disproportionate coverage of wanton violence is that many homicidal maniacs crave publicity. This fact emerged in relation to the Zodiac killings of the 1960's and 1970's where a serial killer played sardonic cat-and-mouse games with the authorities via messages published in newspapers.

Media today are too sophisticated to fall for such blatant manipulation but the truth is that doing something really awful remains a guaranteed method of achieving instant fame, or infamy (a distinction that often seems paper thin).

The worst rampage killers get several days of concentrated media attention, a glare so bright that marketing experts in huge companies, such as American Airlines cannot resist getting in on the act (by offering a scholarship in the name of the slaughtered pastor). At the end of their sorry lives, the murderers can reflect that their crime was so big it took the President of the United States to comfort the victims.

Sources

1 Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking Penguin.

2 Mueller, J. (2006). Overblown: How politicians and the terrorism industry inflate national security threats and why we believe them. New York: Free Press.