The shooting incidents were awful, but aberrations; more Americans die from lightning strikes than from school violence. More kids die in bathtubs. But the media had become obsessed with school violence. In the wake of Columbine, my network aired 383 stories about the tragedy. Sam Donaldson warned wary parents and students about "angry teens turning up in other towns." CBS News correspondent Bob McNamara called school shootings "an American nightmare that too many schools know too well."
But it wasn't a nightmare that schools knew well. In fact, students are probably safer in school than they are at home or at the mall. Crime statistics show that kids are twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school than they are in school.
The media hysteria encouraged people who run schools to do crazy things, like spend thousands of dollars on security cameras, and hire police officers to guard the doors. Some schools terrified students by running SWAT team drills; cops burst into classrooms and ordered kids down to the floor. The result? Kids in school felt less secure than ever before. Though school violence was down, studies show kids were more scared. "They can't learn under these conditions," says Dr. Frank Farley, former head of the American Psychological Association. To listen to the media, Dr. Farley told me, you'd have to believe that Chicken Little was right: "The sky is truly falling. America is in terrible straits and our schools are a mess and they're violent. But they are not violent. I don't know why there is all this press coverage, other than the need for a story."
That's it. The media beast must be fed. Scares drive up circulation and ratings.
MYTH: "Road rage" is an epidemic!
TRUTH: It's not.
The inventor of the term "road rage" is unknown, but he or she has a lot to answer for. Not as much as the media does, though. In 1997, the American Automobile Association Traffic Safety Foundation issued a report on aggressive driving. Newsweek said we were being "driven to destruction," Stone Phillips on NBC said it was "a bigger problem than ever," and on ABC my colleague Barbara Walters said "the trend is frightening."
Others were scratching their heads. They didn't see what the media did. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, which studies media coverage, told me: "If road rage is something that's increasing, we should have more fatalities on the road. There should be more reports of reckless driving. But these things are going down."
So what was the evidence for all these stories? I went to the AAA Foundation, and confronted their chief spokeswoman about their claim that road rage had increased by 51 percent.
STEPHANIE FAUL That's what it appeared to look like from our report. That's all I can tell you. We saw an increase in reported cases.
STOSSEL Reported in the press?
STEPHANIE FAUL Yes, reported in the press.
STOSSEL It might be that reporters just started liking the alliteration, road rage?
STEPHANIE FAUL Well, also they like the idea of violent death by strangers! It's a very common topic in the news reports.
STOSSEL [quoting from her press release] "Reached epidemic proportions. A bigger problem than ever." Does the study justify that?
STEPHANIE FAUL Well, yes and no.
STOSSEL "A neglected epidemic."
STEPHANIE FAUL Yeah, that's a-that's a bit strong.
STOSSEL The impression from the reporting is that there's greater danger out there.