Monday, May 15, 2017
A few weeks ago I commented on the doctor being dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight. Since then there have been incidents of a mother hit by a stroller while boarding an American Airlines plane, followed by a heated confrontation between a flight attendant and passenger on the same flight, a brawl between customers and police over Spirit flight delays in Ft. Lauderdale and a full fist fight between two passengers on a Southwest flight as they deplaned in Los Angeles. Is this a new, widespread phenomenon or just another case of the “summer of the shark attack”?
Despite Time Magazine labeling the summer of 2001 as the Summer of the Shark Attack, with other media outlets picking up the theme, it turned out to be just another case of hype from the news. A University of Florida investigation yielded a different story. “The annual total of 76 unprovoked attacks worldwide [in 2001] was less than the 85 recorded in 2000, and fatalities declined from 12 to five in the same period.” This is typical of what happens when the news uncovers a supposed trend with scary consequences. Now we have this barrage of stories about how badly the airlines treat customers, and Congress gets to show off by calling in the CEOs to grill them about policies and practices.
Perhaps this has something to do with expectations. When commercial airlines first began service, air travel was a luxury, limited to those who could afford the high ticket prices, executives and movie stars. People dressed up for the experience. The common folks who had to travel long distances drove their own cars or took the bus, Greyhound or Trailways, which was relatively inexpensive and not very luxurious.
Now the buses have added more amenities: more comfortable seats with extra legroom, free Wi-Fi, no safety restrictions on phone use and individual power outlets. Meanwhile, airlines have turned into fast versions of the older busses, where everyone is squeezed on and service is limited. The whole experience has changed.
Compare this to “road rage,” a term created in the 1980s to describe aggressive or irate driving. Media stories of road rage have increased from 4,000 per year in the late 1990s to over 13,000 by 2012. It is often blamed on a combination of more vehicles on the road and an “atmosphere in this country [that] has people more stressed,” an atmosphere of stress that has been amplified over the past two years. Yet when is the last time we heard of an incident of road rage highlighted and played over and over on the news? By now it’s old news. But when the current state of hyper-stress in society is manifest on an airplane instead of behind the wheel and captured with a viral smartphone video, it becomes a headline. When it happens two or three times (out of 2.5 million domestic airline passengers per day), it takes on the appearance of a serious pattern, like the summer-of-the-shark-attack.
We must always be aware that the news media is in the business of selling news. The best news will engage us through fear, disgust, curiosity or excitement. Good pictures and exaggeration add to the sale. If necessary they will make it up, for example by conducting a poll and then report the results of the poll as a surprising revelation. They follow important trends, like the murder of black citizens by police last summer, or trivial trends, like these incidents of air rage; then drop them and move on when interest wanes or another, more enticing crisis crowds them out. It’s up to us to think critically and distinguish between the two.