Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Snakes on a plane Wal-Mart!

Today's discussion on risk perception and journalism comes to you courtesy of -- who else? -- Fox News.

What does the rest of your day look like if you're a resident of Fox World? Pretty bleak, as you'll note from the "Latest News"summary above(captured around 2 p.m. EDT). If you're home, you need to get out of the house right now. Indeed, if you're having lunch somewhere en route to the airport, the safest thing you can do is freeze in place, choke on your burger and hope a football player comes along in time to rescue you. Don't continue on to the airport; you'll either be mugged by your fellow passengers or killed in a gruesome collision. And whatever you do, don't go home. If your spouse doesn't kill you (two wives dead, one wounded, one missing), your uncles or your kids will (especially if they've been playing Beer Pong on their video consoles). Or you'll just die from drinking too much cold water.

Now let's consider the fourth-most-read story of the last 24 hours over at the McClatchy Washburo, "Wal-Mart customer bitten by rattlesnake hiding in plants." Note, in particular, the conclusion:

Wal-Mart said it contacted emergency services immediately after the shopper was bitten and is working with authorities in the investigation, said Daphne Moore, a spokeswoman with the company.

''This is clearly an isolated situation. Customer safety is always a priority,'' Moore said.

Well, clearly! I mean, we can't have people stampeding out of Wal-Marts across this great land of ours in fear of rattlesnakes under every potted plant in the entire building isolated cases of almost entirely harmless episodic accidents, can we?

Let's set the economic-determinist argument to rest for a moment. The quote isn't there because Wal-Mart is an advertiser (from a newspaper perspective, it generally isn't, with a few amusing exceptions). It's there because everybody goes shopping, and the Episodic Reptile Disaster narrative calls for an indication at this point that (a) you can relax and (b) the newspaper and Wal-Mart have things under control.* Even if, as the "full story" at the Miami Herald notes, there have been half a dozen or so such snake bites at nurseries in the area over the past decade.

Lots of time to spend on a pretty trivial story, right? Sure, even if it's still hanging in there at #4 on a national Web site. But think outside the paradigm** for a second. What if every story about the "war on terror" -- or more to the point, every story about defense appropriations or congressional campaigns -- included a paragraph putting your personal risk of terrorist mayhem in any particular decade into perspective? How does it compare with your chances of getting bitten by a rattlesnake at the Wal-Mart? (John Mueller's already gone into the comparative risk of drowning in your own toilet, so I won't go there.***)

As long as we're casting about for ways to save journalism from itself or the Internet or whatever, maybe we could give that one a try.

* For a slightly different perspective, see today's entertaining "Confirmed by Science" over to the Language Log.
** Or whatever Those Crazy Kids in newsroom management are saying these days.
*** Even though we have a cat who thinks it's cool to drink out of one.****
**** Woodchuck.

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