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Evaluating the headlines

Jack Balshaw 2/26/2003


Local headlines in the last week bring home the fact that we don't need al Qaida and Iraq to stir up fear. In the Argus alone the headlines were: Restaurateur dies in home invasion, Body of slain man in burned house, Man shot to death on Liberty road, Bicyclist dies in auto accident on North McDowell Boulevard, Man shot by deputy remains hospitalized and Arrest warrant issued for shooting suspect. Add the Press Democrat's story on a fatal road rage incident and we've more than enough local violence to go without CNN's hourly breaking news about more violence.

If the above headlined stories were followed up, repeatedly, hourly, as our international news is, we would all be in a state of continual fear. But they won't be and so we won't think long about them. As you read this, all these headlines are already a week old and you're not concerned at all. How much less fear would there be in this nation if the news of violent happenings on the other side of the globe were to receive similar reduced coverage.

The differences between the national and local handling of such stories shows how the media can keep interest in a topic at a fever pitch. Public concern over inflamatory stories causes our attention to focus where media directs it to focus.

But, the same thing can be said for local news also. The major cause of the restructuring (electing new council members) of the City Council at the last election was primarily due to the public's awareness and then concern about the conditions of our local streets. Somehow, reporting about what's being done regarding those streets has totally vanished since the election.

There was a flurry of street repair just before the election, and then it died out. Much of the lack of visible action can be explained by the fact that resurfacing can't be done in wet weather. But, what plan is the Public Facility Department developing for restarting work in the spring? Which streets, what sections, in what order of priority, how much money, from what source of funds? Something as important as this deserves continuous coverage.

Our General Plan, a $4 million plus study, may be proceeding according to schedule but there is little reporting to inform and prepare the general public for what's coming. There have been several workshops attended by a small segment of Petaluma and nearby county residents and there was a large report made public recently for those inclined to detail. But, all in all, there has been very little written in our local news sources that would generate public interest in the plan.

A little while ago there were reports of gang problems in Petaluma and in Petaluma schools. Since then, nothing. It seems to me, that if there is a problem big enough to be considered a community problem, there should be enough activity to warrant weekly news related to the problem.

Referring back to last week's headlines, let's put them in perspective. Six deaths in an area with a population of about 60,000 people. That's a death rate of one person per 10,000. The 9/11 tragedy resulted in 3000 deaths in a New York metropolitan area with a total population of 20 million. That's a death rate of almost one per 7000.

That comes out to a death rate of about 2 people per 20,000 in Petaluma and 3 per 20,000 on 9/11 in NY. But, we're not living in fear because it was ONLY six deaths here and it hasn't been pounded into our heads that it could happen again next week or the week after. Petaluma doesn't have a color-coded threat level because there isn't much anyone can do about the random types of events reported in those headlines.

But if you want to be afraid, according to last week's headlines, a Petaluman has about two thirds the probability of dying in a random act of violence as the 9/11 victims did.

Always carry duct tape.


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