In 1999, there was a tragic shooting at a Colorado high school. The perpetrators murdered twelve students and one teacher. As a result of that event, many American schools adopted draconian policies such as installing metal detectors, employing armed guards, etc. Those measures occurred in many cases because of media attention and calls to action from activists and the public. Whether the expense involved was worth it is another matter.

Now if I had asked most Americans a day or two after that shooting whether violence at the nation’s high schools had increased over the preceding ten years, it’s a safe bet a large majority would have said yes.

They would have been wrong. School violence and juvenile crime had been decreasing for many years before the shootings at Columbine High School. A post-Columbine report by John Stossel of television station ABC, critical of media-saturated coverage of the event, noted that both lightning and bathtub accidents accounted for more deaths of children than did school shootings. Dewey G. Cornell, a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, and an expert on violence and school safety, pointed out that adolescent violence was declining and said that “schools are still the safest place for a child to be.”

In the two decades plus since Columbine, there have been several other random mass shootings at colleges, high schools and even elementary schools. Those highly publicized events always garner our attention and we often overestimate the prevalence of tragic or vivid events because they come to mind so readily. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “availability heuristic.”

A commonly cited example of how we miscalculate based upon the availability heuristic is an experiment in which people are asked whether there are more English-language words that begin with the letter K versus those that have K as their third letter. Because we can much more easily recall words such as kitchen, kangaroo and kite, we ignore the fact that there are actually about twice as many words with K in third place (e.g. ask, awkward, and baklava).

The news has the effect of making some events, often rare ones, more visible by giving them heavy media coverage. This makes it much easier for us to recall than less widely covered, but possibly more frequent events. That becomes problematic when policy decisions are made- such as high schools employing full-time armed guards- that may not be in the public’s best interest.

Some day we will ask whether media coverage of the coronavirus caused governments to make decisions based not on data, but on an emotional response to the event. One question that will surely arise is did countries make too little or too much of the virus crisis. What will not be in dispute, however, is that the crisis itself certainly got maximum attention from the media. Down the line it will also be worthwhile to examine whether changes made as a result of the pandemic are really proving beneficial or not.


About the Author:

Patrick Mattimore, now retired and living in Pattaya, was an Adjunct Professor of Legal Reasoning and Case Briefing: Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing, teaching psychology to students there. He has also been an online columnist for the Phuket Gazette and its partner newspaper China Daily, covering a variety of topics from why rumors spread panic to selfies among the tuhao.

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