The freeways of Los Angeles are only slightly safer than the streets of West Beirut or the hills of Afghanistan—or so one might believe after reading the news this summer about the "freeway shootings."
It started with a particularly sensational killing—a young man shot dead by an irate tailgater while riding with his girlfriend. This was newsworthy in itself, but soon the "rash of freeway shootings" was the big story in Los Angeles.
Reporters milked the subject for all it was worth: Normally routine crime stories—motorists taking pot shots with pellet guns, for example—were treated as major news. Many of the shootings reported as part of this putative trend didn't even take place on the freeway, and some were as far away as San Francisco. The Associated Press was so desperate one Saturday afternoon, it even carried a dispatch proclaiming that "the sound of gunfire was absent" on Los Angeles freeways that day—the lack of freeway shootings was making news!
Such fad stories are all too common. In an attempt to make the news interesting, journalists often blow tragedies out of proportion, painting a picture of a dangerous, malevolent world. Unfortunately, such irresponsible reporting often feeds calls for intrusive and unnecessary government regulations and programs.
The freeway-shooting hype, for instance, provided a convenient excuse for gun control advocates. The Los Angeles Times deplored what it called the National Rifle Association's "campaign to make certain that a gun is handy when a tire iron would do."
Never mind that at most there are a handful of such shootings, although millions of cars travel California's freeways every day, and, as the Times itself admitted, "nobody seems to know how many Californians carry weapons in their automobiles." Responsible, law-abiding citizens wishing to exercise their Second Amendment rights must be punished for the actions of a few crazies.
It was also a big summer for dog-bites-man stories: Hysteria over attacks by American bull terriers, or "pit bulls," led to calls for the government to "do something." Heeding the uproar, Lynn, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance banning three nonexistent breeds as "pit bulls."
Other examples abound: Martin Morse Wooster, in the July issue of REASON, reported on how homeless activists use sloppy statistics to advance their cause by creating the notion that there is a homeless "crisis." They are abetted by a press that tells touching human-interest stories about vagrants but is less than rigorous in checking its statistics. And they are successful: This summer, Congress approved a billion-dollar homeless aid program.
Then there is AIDS hysteria, perhaps the most disturbing example. In recent months, the media have quoted expert after expert warning about an impending "AIDS epidemic," although the disease cannot be said to have reached anywhere near epidemic proportions except among intravenous drug users and homosexual men in a few major cities. The chance of contracting AIDS is virtually nil for anyone who abstains from the so-called high-risk activities—yet panicked people of all political persuasions are sounding the call for government intervention: Criminalize sex! Pass out condoms in public elementary schools! Quarantine victims in Siberia!
The idea that an AIDS epidemic looms on the horizon not only makes intriguing headlines; it also serves the political aims of a lot of people. Conservatives use it to claim that sexual morality is a matter of life and death, while liberals use it to claim that it isn't—and to remove any onus from homosexuals for spreading the disease.
But the prospect of an AIDS epidemic serves, more than anyone else, the very "experts" who are sounding the alarm: "If this wasn't seen as a heterosexual problem, [government] money wouldn't be there for research," a government doctor told the Los Angeles Times.
Most hyped-up stories come and go in a matter of months. Missing children were all the rage about three years ago—a million kids abducted a year, "stranger danger," pictures on milk cartons, and all that. But all has been strangely quiet on the missing-kids front since the FBI noted that fewer than 100 children a year are kidnapped by strangers.
And who won the "war on drugs"? No one except the drug enforcement bureaucracy, which now has a package of new laws to enforce.
Reporters tend to concentrate on bad news—murders, disease, poverty, and the like. There is good reason for this—in a generally safe, prosperous, and healthy society, it is mostly tragedies that are unusual enough to make news. A "rash of freeway shootings" sells more newspapers than one random murder, and a "homeless crisis" gets better ratings than a handful of hobos.
But in reporting on the perils and tragedies of modern life, reporters should resist the temptation to present the world as more dangerous than it really is. And the public should be skeptical, not only of such fad stories but also of the causes they serve.
James Taranto, a journalism student at California State University, Northridge, is an editorial intern at REASON.