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Scare Tactics



Here's my dark secret: I teach journalism but I hate reading the news. As my husband devours the two newspapers we get delivered each morning, I skim through them like they are cod liver pills I have to wash down.

It wasn't always this way. In college, I bought my own copies of the New York Times in the summer to augment the painfully skimpy local paper we had and I read every story. Admittedly, there wasn't much else to do in Yonkers, New York, in the summer. Still, I was a newshound long before I became a journalist.

But now I read that heroic doctors and nurses are dying by the dozens of Ebola, innocent men and women and children are getting butchered in Iraq, war is breaking out in the Ukraine, which could be the start of WWIII, police in our country are shooting young shoplifters, and we've got thousands of people here who think nothing of rounding up immigrant children and sending them back to countries where they have no hope of living to old age. I just want to take a long shower, but I read that we don't have enough water in the state to justify that.

Lately, I've been watching Under the Dome, a pretty stupid TV show about Every Town, USA, that suddenly gets trapped under an invisible dome. Everyone wants desperately to get out. But the more I read the news, the more charming that trapped dome life seems. I want in the dome.

All this venting is in response to a story in the Times-Standard about homicide rates in Eureka. In a letter to the editor, my friend Scott Brown over at Eureka Books summarized the dismay I felt when I read that Eureka's homicide rate was on par with Oakland's, according to Humboldt County Sheriff's Lt. Wayne Hanson.

Anyone reading further in the story would have found from Eureka's police department that the rise in homicide rates was an anomaly and if you got to the second part of the story in the back of the news section, you found out that the rate was actually one-fourth of Oakland's. Meanwhile, Oakland's homicide rate has been on the decline for several years.

But most people are like me these days. They skim through the news, reading the first few paragraphs of each story.

There is enough actual scary stuff happening in the world that we don't need to be scared by misrepresented numbers. In his letter, Brown pointed out that Eureka's per-capita murder rate made it a safer town than Sacramento or Tucson, although I'm not sure that made me feel much better.

Murder rates aren't even the best measure of safety. People get murdered mostly by people they know. On TV and in movies, serial killers are everywhere, but not so much in real life. A better tell is that of violent crime in general, as that's where we see robberies and assaults, and attempted murders, as well as homicides. Those numbers are troubling for Eureka. In 2012, the last full year of data I could find, Eureka had a violent crime rate of 5.79 per 1,000 people. To put that into perspective, I equate it to my high school of 2,000 students. To have that violent crime rate, 11 my fellow students would have had to get attacked in some way in a given year. If that had happened, my parents would have pulled me out of school. That's twice the state median for cities. But 166 cities have worse rates than Eureka. Meanwhile, Arcata has a rate that's 30 percent higher than the state median, but Ferndale and Rio Dell are well below.

Really, though, in a small, rural area, do you need stats to tell you how safe or dangerous the place is? I don't need to know how Arcata compares to the rest of the state to know that if I lock my car at Mad River Beach with anything valuable in it, chances are I'll come back to find my window shattered. Do I feel unsafe at the beach? No, except for those sneaker waves. And you know what makes me feel most unsafe in Eureka? Bad, drunk and stoned drivers. I fear the accidents more than violent criminals.

Here is what is really at issue: In a time when there is so much really, really bad news in the world, we don't need our local papers to be overstating the bad news at home. Let's ramp up the good news coverage. How about the multiple times good samaritans went out of their way to return my wallet with cards and cash intact the many times I lost it?

The problem with the news industry is that it feels compelled to report what's new. But in rural areas that isn't much. So instead, news organizations report anomalies and after a while, we think the anomalies are the norm. When news sites can report EVERY child abduction in the country as individual news items, we think children are abducted everywhere, when that isn't the case. They don't report children who get home safe every day. When every homicide is reported and not much of anything else, we think homicides happen everywhere, all the time. Newspapers don't report non-crime.

I'd like to wake up every morning and see a big five-column headline in my paper: "Nothing Bad Happened Today." That's a paper I'd read.

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She sighs in relief every morning when she discovers to her great surprise that the world has not ended.

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