Are We Scaring You?

Fact: There's never been a single confirmed death or serious injury from a stranger doctoring Halloween candy since public fears about tainted treats first surfaced in the late 1950s.

Fact: If you were to add up the numbers that have appeared in various media accounts about how many Americans are seriously ill from heart disease, cancer and a host of other maladies, the total would exceed 500 million--or about double the population of the United States.

Fact: Between 1990 and 1998, the nation's homicide rate declined by 20 percent. But the number of stories about homicide on network news increased 600 percent.

You can check these and other facts, says University of Southern California sociologist Barry Glassner, who did. But many reporters don't. Instead, Glassner asserts, the media often offer "poignant anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, the christening of isolated incidents as trend [and] depictions of entire categories of people as innately dangerous." The result? Those of us in the news biz sometimes needlessly scare people silly.

Glassner's list of recent overblown stories included the rate of heroin addiction among teens, the dangers of silicone breast implants, killer co-workers, airplane fatalities and road rage. He chronicles these in his new book, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things."

The best example of how scare stories work involves the reporting of crime, Glassner said. Heinous or unusual crimes remain a staple on local television, where the rule often is, "if it bleeds, it leads" the nightly newscast. As a result of what we see and read, most Americans tell pollsters that they believe violent crime is on the rise. Some politicians feed on these public fears, winning elections by promising to get tough on crime. But, as Glassner points out, "Crime rates have been going down for seven straight years and overall crime rates are at a 30-year low."

In similarly contrarian fashion, Glassner notes that Southern Illinois University sociologist Joel Best examined every reported incident of tainted Halloween candy since 1958, but couldn't find a single instance of serious injury or death resulting from adulterated treats dispensed by a stranger. Nearly all the alleged tamperings were later proven to be false alarms or hoaxes, often the work of kids playing a prank.

For the record, there have been two confirmed deaths from poisoned Halloween treats. In the first incident, family members sprinkled heroin on a 5-year-old's candy to cover up the fact that the child had eaten heroin in his uncle's home. In the second, police determined that a boy died after his father spiked a Halloween treat with cyanide in hopes of collecting insurance money.

Glassner does have some kind words for reporters. "In general, I found it was journalists who debunked the myths--often journalists from the same publication that originally promoted the scares," he said.

Trust Me: It's the Economy

Here's another bonus, courtesy of our booming economy: People appear to be more likely to trust strangers, says Eric Uslaner, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland and an authority on interpersonal trust.

In 1960, 58 percent of those interviewed in an annual national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago agreed that "most people can be trusted." By the mid-1990s, the percentage had plummeted to 36 percent.

But in 1998, something remarkable happened: Levels of personal trust not only stopped falling, but increased by 4 percentage points in the NORC poll and by 7 percentage points in a poll conducted by the University of Michigan. That's a "huge increase" as these things are measured, Uslaner said, and one that he attributes to the healthy economy.

Uslaner's work suggests we're not more trusting these days merely because we've got more money in our pockets. It's because the high-flying economy apparently has trickled down to lower-income groups, halting the increase in income inequality. As the gap between the rich and the poor grows smaller, people are more trusting of strangers and are less likely to see others "as competitors who are out to take what is ours," says Uslaner.

In his work, he looked at data collected between 1960 and 1996 and compared changes in income inequality with changes in the percentage of people in national surveys who believed most people could be trusted.

The relationship was dramatic: As income inequality increased, personal trust declined; as the gap between the rich and poor narrowed, trust increased. In fact, he found that about 60 percent of changes in trust could be explained simply by changes in income inequality.

'Best Books'

What's the "best" nonfiction book ever written?

"The Education of Henry Adams," by Henry Adams, says the Modern Library.

Wrong. It's "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," by L. Ron Hubbard, the founding father of Scientology, according to . . . the Modern Library.

Huh?

It's true. "The Education of Henry Adams" topped the list of 100 best nonfiction books compiled by a panel of eminent historians, scientists and book critics. But in a separate top-100 list--based on responses to a survey offered to any visitor to the Modern Library's Web page, Hubbard finished on top.

Of course you know what happened: Hubbard acolytes went online and stuffed the cyber ballot box. So did Ayn Rand fans; her cult classic "The Virtue of Selfishness" finished second.

In case you're wondering, "The Education of Henry Adams" is 56th in the ongoing Modern Library online poll, as of Saturday. Neither "Dianetics" nor "The Virtue of Selfishness" made the experts' list.

You can reach The Unconventional Wiz at: morinr@washpost.com