The 'Fear Industrial Complex'


Feb. 23, 2007 — -- From the faces of missing children on posters that cry "Have You Seen Me?" to public service announcements about cancer and other illnesses; from the terrorist attacks splashed across daily headlines to the reports of mad cow disease and avian flu on nightly newscasts, the media provide the public with no shortage of things to fear. The message is clear: The world is a scary place, and you should be worried.

A Time magazine cover in April 2006 said it outright: "Be Worried. Be Very Worried." The media aren't the only purveyors of fear, however.

"I think there is a fear industrial complex," said Barry Glassner, author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," and more recently, "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong." He said the fear industrial complex is composed of politicians, activist groups and corporations that all sell us on the idea that they can provide safety from the very dangers they are scaring us about.

We at ABC are as guilty as any other media outlet of rushing out to cover every new threat that arises. And the reason we scare people is simple:

"Fear gets your eyeballs," said. Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of "Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition" and founder of the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Mass.

For broadcast media, eyeballs equal ratings. For politicians, eyeballs equal votes. For activists, eyeballs equal support for their causes. For corporations, eyeballs equal sales. The bottom line: Worry and fear sell.

"Whenever somebody's trying to scare us, the question to ask is 'Are they benefiting from it, and in what way?'" said Glassner. "If they're selling us a product, if they're selling us their political campaign or their cause or whatever it is, we should ask how big is the danger, really? Is it big, is it small, or is it just that they stand to benefit by making us scared?"

In the case of the media, they provide plenty to worry about, like shark attacks being on the rise, killer bees attacking, flesh-eating bacteria and countless other threats. But they are rarely reported with any real perspective on the actual risk involved. Suddenly, the public starts to panic over something that poses minimal risk at most.

"We often worry about things that … are not very dangerous, but which seem it. And the reason they seem it is because of … the media who show images and tell stories about terrible, terrible things that happen," said Stephen Dubner, co-author of "Freakonomics." "People see those things and they think that they are the norm, and in fact, they are a great exception."

Take shark attacks, a summer favorite for the media back in 2001. Dubner said shark attacks are a great example of a source of worry, having been the cause of only 100 fatalities worldwide in the last 15 years.

"Yet, when there's one shark attack in Florida one summer, and it becomes the big news story in the slow summer on network news," he said, "think of the millions and millions of people who won't go in the water for days, weeks, months, years."

Certainly shark attacks happen, but, he said, "You're much more likely to be killed … walking in your backyard and hitting a rake and having it hit you in the head and fall into a lawn mower than a shark attack."

Another example of the fear industrial complex playing on our fears is in the case of kidnappings. We see the messages about lost children everywhere: from our mailboxes to our grocery stores to our freeways.

And it's no small wonder. According to Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, they have 400 photo partners to help distribute millions of pictures every week. They also send direct mail flyers to 100 million homes each week. Furthermore, they have partnerships with major retail chains, such as Wal-Mart, that post missing child bulletins in every store, and media outlets, like USA Today, that run missing child photos every day.

You'd think thousands of children in this country were being abducted every year the way Adam Walsh, Ben Ownby or Elizabeth Smart were, but the truth is, "There are only about 115 kids a year who become Adam Walsh-type stories, or stories like Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, in Missouri," Allen said. "Kids who are taken in the most serious way, kept a long period of time, victimized in the most serious way."

There's certainly no debate over the 115 children being 115 children too many, and there's no question that Allen's cause is a heroic one, but its efforts to garner public attention cost parents and children their peace of mind.

"We work very hard not to frighten the American people," Allen said. "But neither do we want the American public to live in some Pollyanna world in which they feel that their kids don't face risks."

As if watching the NCMEC's public service announcements portraying creepy predators around every street corner isn't scary enough, you can turn back to the media and watch as your worst fear plays out over weeks, months, perhaps even longer.

"The great thing about child kidnapping for the media is it's not a one-shot thing," said Glassner. "The child is still gone, you can keep following it. 'Is there a new lead?' Then finally, if they're discovered, that's the grand finale, so every child kidnapping is a gold mine."

With all these elements in play, coming at you from every angle, you can't help but be frightened, especially if you're a parent.

Dan McGinn of the McGinn Group conducted a focus group of parents, and he showed them the NCMEC PSAs. "When [parents] talk about their kids and the risk of kidnapping, the numbers become irrelevant," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's 100 kids in the United States or 10,000. They really believe, 'It's my child.'"

Many of the parents in the group shared their fears of allowing their children out of their sight. One mother said that although "my son hates me for it," she doesn't allow him to go to public restrooms by himself.

"The last thing in the world that American parents need to worry about is their kids being snatched off a playground, or away from them when they take them outside," said Glassner.

He acknowledges that it does happen, but the overall reality is that it happens very rarely. "A child is more likely to be struck by lightning," Glassner said. "A child is more likely to have a heart attack, and children don't have very many heart attacks. So, you know, you've got to keep these things in proportion."

Activists groups like Allen's aren't the only fear industrial complex component that benefit from exploiting the fear of kidnapping. Politicians win big, too.

"They can win elections by passing new laws, spending multimillions of dollars," Glassner said. "It's hard to find a major politician who hasn't benefited from this one."

The media, activist groups and politicians shoulder a great deal of the blame scaring the public, but they are not the only ones. The final fear industrial complex component is the corporations that sell us on the products and services that will keep us safe.

"Fear is a fantastic marketing device," said Dubner, "because if you get someone scared, and have something to sell them that will alleviate that fear, you'd better believe they're gonna go buy it."

"I think there are a lot of people selling us scares so that we can then buy their products," Glassner said. He said it ranges from antibacterial soaps, to alarms for cars and homes, to foods that are supposed to be healthier and safer.

"Antibacterial soap is one of my favorite ones," Dubner said, adding that it's unnecessary because "It doesn't tend to work any better than regular soap, if you use it properly, and it may even be contributing to bacterial resistance."

Born out of parents' fears for their children's lives are all kinds of child safety products that have been promoted in the last two decades.

"Child-resistant packaging, flame retardant pajamas, drawstrings on clothing, children dying from the impact of airbags, side airbags in cars," Dubner said, to name a few. "And in fact, the loss of life in each of these is very, very, very small. But as a marketing tactic, it's an extremely powerful effect."

Ultimately, Glassner said that the messages that cause us to worry so much are a far cry from the truth. "We live in about the safest place, about the safest times in human history, and yet we're terrified of everything."

"For all of us to worry about everything is a gigantic waste of time," said Dubner, and Hallowell added that there are far more constructive things to worry about and far less consuming ways to do it.

"You should worry about whatever is causing you a problem … whatever it is that happens to be in your life worth worrying about, like a mole on your forearm, like a debt that continues to rise."

Marc Siegel, author of "False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear," has similar advice about worrying.

"Our message isn't, 'Don't worry about anything,'" he said. "Our message is, 'Worry about the right things. Worry about things that can really harm your health."

Click here for more information on strategies for dealing with worries.

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