For years, I reported on every scare someone brought me. Dangerous chemicals ... nuclear threats ... food additives ...
But eventually I got to the point where I said, "Wait! My TV show hypes everything. Every night we say 'watch out, this could kill you.' Shouldn't part of our job be to put risk in perspective? Some things are much more likely to hurt us than others.”
So I spent a year researching what *is* most likely to kill us. I compiled a list and posted it over my desk.
Then I was ready when a 20/20 producer came in with the next scare story: "John, we've gotta do a story on Bic lighters. They spontaneously catch fire! They explode in people's pockets! They've killed 4 people over the last four years!"
They had. Some people had been horribly burned.
But by then, I had my “death” list, and I could say to him, “okay, I'll do your story on Bic lighters, but first, we should do a story on plastic bags. They kill 25 times as many Americans. Or bathtubs! Let's do a story on bathtubs! They kill hundreds of Americans!”
The producer called me callous. 20/20 got another reporter to do the bic lighter story.
On my FOX Business show tonight, I try to put risk in perspective.
It turns out that my original list was too crude, because it didn't account for the fact that something that kills children is worse than something that kills people my age. So the risk specialists compare risk by: how many days each risk takes off an average life.
So here are some things that the media cover, and how many days each risk takes off an average life.
Many people fear flying, but there are so few plane crashes today that flying takes less than a day off an average life.
Americans fear terrorism. 3,000 people died on September 11th. But the bar graph offers perspective. If September 11th happened every three years (it's been 9 years now), terrorism would still take just 2 days off an average life.
Compare that to house fires. We don’t worry much about that, but we should. House fires kill 3000 Americans EVERY year. A ten dollar smoke detector is a wonderful thing.
Much of what the media shriek about: pollution, chemicals in plastic, razor blades in Halloween candy, kids being kidnapped, etc., would be barely visible on the chart above. Still, if those were all the risks,you might say that the media don’t do that terrible a job
But note how all the previous bars must shrink if we add cigarette smoking to the list.
The smoker who worries about terrorism is a fool.
More importantly, let’s add one more risk to my chart… poverty:
If you are poor -- below the poverty line in America, or in the lowest quintile of income in other countries, your life span is likely to be 7 to 10 years shorter. Poverty kills. Poor people drive older cars with older tires… they buy less fresh fruit… etc. Wealthier… is healthier.
And so when Americans spend time and money obsessing about small stuff like plane crashes and even terrorism, we kill people. The obsessing quickly becomes political activism, which leads to more regulation and rules that make it harder to open a business, or to run a business. When businesses don’t open, or are regulated to death, America is a little poorer.
The media’s foolish hysteria and America’s mountain of regulation…kill people.