Anyone who thinks the world is a mean, dangerous place, may simply be watching too much television news and the solution could be as simple as reading more newspapers.
Exhibit A: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump angrily proclaiming that America is unsafe, devoting much of his Republican National Convention to painting a vision of apocalypse from Syracuse to Syria. While many political pundits reacted negatively to the tone of his rhetoric and his dark vision of the current state of the planet, they largely failed to point out that the data simply does not support his miserable world view. In fact, our society is safer than it was a generation ago and broadening media consumption beyond TV reveals a better world.
To be sure, it's been a rough summer. We've seen a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, ISIS mayhem across the Middle East, police shootings of African American men in the United States and the shooting of police. However, Trump (as is typical of the candidate from the party out of power) is engaging in election-year rhetorical excess for short-term political advantage.
So, before deciding to stay under the covers, consider this data. Violent crime in the United States has fallen dramatically. In 1993, there were 898,239 reported rapes or sexual assaults, but by 2014 that number had fallen 68% to 284,345, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data. Over the same period, aggravated assaults fell from 3,481,055 incidents to 1,092,091 -- a decline of 69%. The U.S. homicide rate fell 49% from 9.3 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1992 to 4.7 in 2011 -- the lowest level since 1963.
Why Violence Has Declined
It's not just America that is relatively peaceful, but the planet. Our safer world is detailed in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Harvard University's Steven Pinker. His vision is in stark contrast to Trump's. Pinker writes that we live in an age of peace marked by fewer wars and a diminishment of everything from schoolyard bullying to the mistreatment of gays and minorities. As a result of fewer wars, the global death rate fell from 22 per 100,000 people in 1945 to 0.3 in 2011. While the Syrian civil war, violence in South Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, Russia's conflict with Ukraine, the Saudi bombing of Yemen, Libya's civil war, ISIS, and a spike in terrorism caused that number to rise by 2014 to 1.4 per 100,000 -- the overwhelming trend remains one of a more peaceful world.
Wall-to-wall TV news coverage of violence may even cause contagion, prompting more violence. "The detailed coverage of terrorist attacks may be giving people who are vulnerable or thinking along these line ideas about what to do and how to do it," Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia University told the New York Times.
The problem of portraying the world as dangerous and violent is particularly acute with television, which focuses on a few big stories at a time, says DePauw University Professor of Communication Jeffrey McCall, author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Television is a medium that is emotional in nature and it is nearly impossible for reporters to place violence in its proper context during 90-second segments, he says. Even if reporters are aware that the long-term trend is toward less violence, they are always on the alert for a possible reversal of that trend, especially close to home.
"The live nature of television forces stories onto the air before proper context and background can be established," says McCall. "Sensational video makes it impossible for a shocked viewer to understand any one criminal or terrorist event in relationship to the bigger picture."
Improving Media Literacy
So, the best antidote to Trump and those selling a false vision of a dangerous world is for the public to consume a variety of media, including newspapers, which explore a greater variety of stories, including upbeat news such as showbiz news, a new factory bringing new jobs, medical advances and lifestyle features. People interested in a more balanced and nuanced view of international news developments should also seek out nano-news organizations that tell stories from the parts of the world often not covered by television news.
"Newspaper outlets do a much better job of providing a picture of reality than television," says McCall. "People who get most of their news from television are more likely to think their community and the world as a whole are more dangerous than what they really are. Media analysts refer to this as the 'mean world syndrome.'"
The long-term solution is better media literacy education. "Media consumers should be encouraged to get news from multiple sources and to get some of their news from non-video sources," says McCall. "Societal leaders should advocate for more media literacy in schools -- elementary through college -- to create media consumers who can put news coverage into perspective and not simply absorb all reporting at face value."
So, maybe all Mr. Trump needs to do to brighten his dour outlook is to read a newspaper from time to time.
Ehab Al Shihabi is an advisor to the Director General at Al Jazeera Media Network and an Edward R. Murrow Center Senior Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He writes about the media and the news industry and his opinions here are his and only his.