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The (End of the) World According to CNN

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About This Horse

If you are to believe the media, especially the "global" 24 hours news channels which need to find something to fill all that time, the human race is in dire, imminent and terminal danger of extinction. AIDS, SARS, Y2K, bird flu, ebola, global warming, global terrorism, food allergies, oil prices, alternative religious dogmas - take your pick. While many of these are real concerns and should in no way be dismissed out of hand (except Y2K), the media hype surrounding them is based often on an inflated report of the danger because people's fear is newsworthy. Running a story on the threat to humankind of an outbreak of a new and deadly form of athletes foot allows the media to parade before its bemused audience an endless stream of talking heads explaining why the world has underestimated this deadly threat, how billions of people could die as a result of humanity's inability to recognise the danger and, of course, boost their own ratings in the process. In the absence of real news and serious investigative reporting around tangible issues that affect people's lives, the media instead sells amorphous horror stories calculated to fill us with dread but which at the end of the day amount to little more than the news equivalent of reality TV - mindless entertainment designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.


Why It's Dead

Many of the issues that make it onto the media horror list are real and terrible afflictions. AIDS is endemic in many parts of the world and is responsible of millions of deaths in the developing world. Ebola is a horrific disease, though so virulent that the chances of a pandemic are practically non-existent. Terrorism is real, though overused as a political tool by cynical power brokers in the developed world. However, by elevating these issues to doomsday scenarios, media attention in fact serves only to trivialize the issues to the point where the average viewer, overwhelmed by the constant barrage of predictions of mass mortality, eventually tunes out altogether. Media hyperbole essentially reduces many of the issues over which we should be taking action to the level of the mundane.

SARS killed 800 people worldwide. While that is terrible for the families of the people that died, statistically speaking the number is inconsequential in comparison to the global population. The doomsday scenarios predicted by the IT industry in the run up to Y2K made a lot of people very wealthy as companies bought into to the hype and "inoculated" their computer systems - the dawn of the new millennium, however, did not echo to the crash of aircraft falling out of the sky or IBM's share price going through the floor. For every human being killed by human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, many millions of cows have been slaughtered and the farmers that raise them have seen their businesses evaporate.

As each of these media-hyped threats evaporates from the collective consciousness, the end result is a kind of collective ennui. Like the boy who cried wolf, the media channels that perpetuate this type of hysteria risk reducing their own credibility to that of a carnival sideshow. If a real and tangible threat does materialize the desensitized population, lulled into a false sense of security by the history of failed predictions, may well simply tune out. And check out.

Image:Grave situation.jpg


You Might Be Riding It If...

  • You have a house stocked with Tamiflu and are boycotting South East Asian countries
  • You refuse to eat pork, beek, chicken, fish, eggs, shrimp, broccoli, genetically modified organisms, tap water, bottled water, carbohydrates, fats or proteins
  • You've moved house six times in the past year because the people next door look like Muslims
  • You think the Department of Homeland Security is an essential component in America's defense against the forces of evil
  • You watched "Team America: World Police" and didn't get the joke
  • You have six month's supply of food buried in a nuclear shelter in your back yard left over from the Cuban Missile Crisis because, hey, you never know
  • You are teaching your four year old child to track game, strip down a small assault rifle and make a fishing spear out of a broomstick handle and a garden trowel
  • You regularly offer your work colleagues unsolicited advice about how to prepare for the next pandemic / invasion / two degree rise in ambient temperature
  • You can listen to a TV 'expert' intone the line "It's not a question of if this will happen; it's a question of when" without suffering the overwhelming urge to hurl a shoe at the TV


  • You dismiss everything you see on the TV news as just more hype.


Better Horses to Ride

Why not reality test the stories you see on the media by reading around the topic? Evaluate the many positions out there on the relative dangers posed by the threat of the week and make an informed decision.

Alternatively, why not encourage the news media to better research their own stories and emphasize hard, corroborated data over unsubstantiated projections and bad science?

Or possibly identify those issues that you can take personal action to address without requiring the threat of an extinction level event to jolt you into activity.

Reading List

Michael Fumento - Hysteria Drives Government Disease Spending - and it's Killing Us [[1]]: The New York Sun, November 7 2007

Wikipedia entry on the Y2K Problem [[2]]

For Doomsday Hoarders, What Now? [[3]]: New York Times, January 6 2000

Pandemic threat is real, expert tells National Science Week seminar [[4]]: Science Network Western Australia, August 18 2006


"It's not a question of if this will happen. It's a question of when." (Insert expert of choice here)


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