Stories that appeal to our fears, also need perspective

The tip came into reporter Eric Peterson shortly before 11:45 a.m. Tuesday. Someone had heard of a SWAT team at work in Schaumburg and there were reports of a weapon.

Within minutes, Peterson confirmed with Schaumburg police that a large group of officers — but no SWAT team — were conducting a search and an office building was under a quasi-lockdown following reports of a “suspicious” man carrying a gun. It was not yet something to be alarmed about, yet people were worried. Rumors and questions were being called into our newsroom and leaking into social media, including to our Facebook page “Everything Schaumburg.” Peterson quickly put together a story describing what could be confirmed. Our editors posted it at our website online and engaged with the Facebook audience to make people aware of what we knew and assure them we would post more details as they became available.

It didn’t take long. By about 12:30 p.m., the “crisis” was over. We were able to report that following an investigation and search, Schaumburg police had determined the suspicious man with a gun was merely an individual using a piece of maintenance equipment.

End of story, more or less.

But a couple of observations deserve attention. For one, in another era, we would have reported this story somewhat differently. Of course, we would have dispatched a photographer and assigned a reporter, as we did Tuesday, but we would not have worried so much about immediate reporting. We wouldn’t have been able to inform the public about the full nature of the situation until the next morning’s paper. Today, the tools of the internet and social media enable us to be an immediate resource to calm speculation about an event like this.

But the incident also says something about how news events and news coverage affect the general sense of security among people nowadays. A seemingly constant litany of tragedies keeps pulsing through our consciousness — Sutherland Springs, New York City, Las Vegas, Charlottesville, and on and on and on. How can we not be apprehensive in such an environment?

Still, there’s this assertion from security expert Bruce Schneier in a 2010 TED Talk I ran across earlier in the week: “What newspapers do is repeat again and again rare risks. I tell people: if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it, because by definition, news is something that almost never happens.”

True enough. What makes news is that which is interesting, and that which is common is often not interesting. But certain types of events still demand our attention. Opioid deaths, for instance. Terrorism and gun violence, of course. Other ongoing stories, as well.

In a 2016 episode of his podcast “Revisionist History,” writer Malcolm Gladwell describes how a spate of reports led to a “media circus” blaming a computer glitch for reports of frightening, often deadly, sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Then, he goes on to show how sober reflection and critical scrutiny prove the problems were all but certainly attributable to drivers flooring the gas pedal when they thought they were pressing the brakes.

“I’ll tell you what a media circus was. The entire Toyota sudden acceleration scandal,” Gladwell says. “Because people … insisted that some elaborate electronic coverup stood behind it, because people … couldn’t admit that this was just, overwhelmingly, a matter of human error.”

Terrifying reports of uncontrollable cars. Horrific stories of terror and cold-blooded mass murder. Rare enough to make news. Alarming enough to cause suspicion and (thankfully, let’s keep in mind) attract swarms of police to the scenes of mistaken interpretations of everyday occurrences. These and many more stories like them are all features of this imperfect science we call “news judgment.” Fortunately, contemporary technologies enable news agencies to react to and report on them more immediately — and therefore provide a greater service to the public.

But there is a caution of sorts here for news consumers. With many types of political or controversial stories, it’s useful to remember President Ronald Reagan’s famous invocation to “trust, but verify.” But with stories that appeal to our fears and concerns, the corollary “worry, but verify” may be just as important.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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