Falling birds, killer wasps, killer wifi and other perennials

January 10, 2011

Robert Krulwich

With birds dropping willy-nilly out of the sky, blackbirds in Arkansas, jackdaws in Sweden, turtledoves in Italy, people are wondering if something has gone seriously and dangerously wrong. What are these birds telling us? Well, we might want to pause and look at this graph: "Mountains out of Molehills: A timeline of global media scare stories," from designers David McCandless and Joshua Lee.

Mountains Out Of Molehills

This is a ten year census in graph form of stories that got lots of media attention because they carried news of possible doom: swine flu, bird flu, mad cow disease, SARS, killer wasps, killer Wifi, Y2K, violent video games, vaccinations that make kids autistic. Each story is color coded so if you see the same color repeating, that means the story kept coming back year after year after year.

The Killers That Keep on Killing

Most of these "killers" had a season or two of news spikes and died. But if you click on the graph, an interactive version will pop up, and you will notice a continuing string of brown hummocks.

Brown is code for 'Video Games Are Dangerous' stories. For some reason this one’s a perennial.  Click on any brown shape and you can see a time line showing when during the year the underlying stories (or web mentions) ran. You will see the media seems to focus on violent video games around spring break (March-April), and again at Thanksgiving/Christmas, but not during game-rich summertime -- why, I’m not sure.

The Reporters Who Keep on Reporting

What McCandless and Lee really want to say is hiding in a note just below the graph. That's where they note that all of these "dangerous" stories turned out to be not that dangerous. Boring, ordinary "seasonal flu" killed more people than any scary story on the list.

So why, they (don't quite) ask do editors exaggerate these dangers, knowing as they must that the true risks are unknown, complex or not that likely?

For example, a "mass die-off" of birds seems startling until you learn that five billion birds die every year in the USA so basic probability says they will sometimes die in groups; The New York Times reported that red-wing blackbirds hang out in groups of 100,000 to 2 million. In that size a crowd, if 5,000 birds are startled by fireworks and die, that is, it turns out, a relatively small proportion. Not nothing. But not a staggering kill.

So one reason these stories get big runs is there's no way to know if something is really scary until you check it out.  And often, the checking (with swine flu there was a lot of checking) goes on and on for months.

The Thrill of the Chill

And second, it's only natural to root (in some subconscious way) for an exciting explanation. When we read about birds dropping out of the sky, of course we want know why it happened, and if it turns out all we've got is a predictable statistical anomaly, that's ok, but emotionally, because it feels a little deflating -- not quite what we were hoping for -- we keep looking and checking. The stories keep coming because we don't want to put the scarier, more exciting possibilities to bed, not just yet.

What am I saying? I'm saying journalists, (I mean good journalists) should tell it straight with all the complexities left in. But I'm also saying people, being people, often want a scary story with all the complexities left out. And the reason McCandless and Lee's graph looks the way it does, is sometimes those two tensions, "scare me more" and "tell me more" wrestle for a spell. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.