December 23, 2019

Fear and Fire

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Twice in a period of eight days, people in my zip code were affected by brush fires. While I have been fortunate and haven’t had to evacuate, I live in a community surrounded by a state park and therefore by lots of trees, so fire is always a threat here.

Needless to say, seeing plumes of smoke and having helicopters swirl overhead is a scary experience. Fire reminds us that we are not completely in control of our environment, or our lives, for that matter.

Many of us do the same thing during any type of local emergency: we turn on the local news. I wanted to get a look at the fires in real time, especially the one that was only a mile away in October. What I got, along with the live shot, was a big dose of drama—exactly what you don’t need when faced with the news that you might have to evacuate.

Comments were highly emotional: residents “fled for their lives,” as newscasters breathlessly reminded us that fire “threatened hundreds (or thousands) of homes.” The camera zoomed in to show a screen filled with fire, creating the impression that it was out of control. Reporters interviewed evacuees, who were understandably upset and anxious about their homes, adding to the emotional drama.

Emergencies make for good television: there is built-in drama, victims, sometimes villains, and heroes that come to the rescue. A colloquial term often used for this is kind of coverage is “disaster porn,” an emotionally gratuitous loop of coverage that shares more human suffering than information about an event. (See this essay for some ideas why people might enjoy "disaster porn.")

You might be thinking, “what’s the harm in a little extra focus on human emotion?” For one, it might crowd out other stories about the context and background of an event. In my zip code, there are a lot of pricey homes, and reporters regularly mentioned that fact in their coverage. The national news coverage also mentioned that celebrities live in the area. This is probably one of the reasons that the nearby fires got so much media attention. But a recent study found that low-income communities are most vulnerable to fire, especially in rural areas.

The fires and their news coverage remind me of sociologist Barry Glassner’s book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Originally published in 1999 and recently updated, the book examines news coverage of issues like airplane crashes, crime, drug use and other common scares that are often disproportionally covered in the news, leading people to overestimate the nature of these problems and become fearful. (Full disclosure: Glassner was one of my grad school mentors and his work has been highly influential on my own.)

It’s not just that we are afraid of the wrong things, but that fear mongering has very tangible effects, especially if we are encouraged to fear certain groups by politicians. These distractions draw on our emotions and take our attention away from more significant threats. And fear mongering can be very profitable: whether it is for click bait or for ratings or to sell people things they don’t really need, fearing the wrong things can literally cost us. (You can hear more about the problems of fear mongering on Glassner’s new podcast, Fear Not. It’s actually a comedy podcast, and yes, it is funny.)

So is fearing fire a bad idea? Of course not, especially if you live in a fire-prone community and fear leads you to take action (including adhering to brush-clearance protocols, creating an emergency kit, and having an evacuation plan in advance). And while seeing the emotional responses of people who evacuate and maybe even lose their homes can inspire homeowners to be more proactive about brush control and disaster preparedness, it can also paralyze us if the fear is overwhelming.


I think it is a good idea, I have thought of it but not as detailed as you.

The impacts of fear mongering are real, particularly when politicians try to make us fearful of a specific set of people rather than the things they really should be terrified of.

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