The Numbers Do Lie
The human stories hiding behind the statistics
The image of the roiling black smoke fed by orange-red flames filled the TV screen as the news anchor described the loaded oil tanker that had overturned and caught fire on a South Florida highway. “The driver did not survive.” The dispassionate announcement sounded like an afterthought as the image shifted to the antics of a yellow-clad emu in an insurance commercial.
As I frequently do when I hear of a tragic accident, I pause in my work to pray for those who are left behind to mourn their loved one.
Huge numbers like those don’t reveal the human tragedy that each of those deaths represents. That afternoon, the casual announcement of another fatality disturbed me. In the weeks since then, those few seconds on the evening news, and the impression it made on me, have stuck with me. It made me wonder if we’ve been so inundated with bad news in the media that we’ve lost our understanding of how precious, and precarious, life is.
Mental health professionals use the term secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma to describe what happens to professionals such as healthcare workers, therapists, and social workers when they are constantly exposed to other people’s traumas.
But people who do not work in those fields are also deeply affected by stories they are exposed to, such as news reports of violent crimes or even gruesome television dramas.
Whether we want this exposure or not, it is almost impossible to avoid the vivid images as they are played over and over in the mainstream news and on social media feeds. Who will ever forget the image of Eric Chauvin kneeling, hands in pocket as casually as if he was out for a stroll, squeezing the life out of George Floyd? It was played over and over on every network and local news broadcast, for weeks — and then was picked up and played again and again as the trial ensued.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that
Widespread media coverage extends the boundaries of local disasters, transmitting their impact far beyond the directly exposed population and turning them into collective traumas….”
In recent decades, it seems like we have reeled from one disaster to another, with a constant barrage of news feeds covering acts of war or terrorism, mass shootings, and natural disasters that claim hundreds, even thousands of lives in an instant. Who can begin to comprehend the human tragedies hiding in those numbers?
The scale of these events overwhelms our natural ability to empathize. Just like our minds allow us to temporarily forget traumatic childhood events as a defense mechanism, is it possible we have adapted to our overexposure to trauma by blocking out on an emotional level the impact in human terms of the carnage on our screens?
Modern communication technology is a two-edged sword — it has given us the ability to flash images around the world within seconds, creating a sense of global connectedness unique in human history. But, ironically, that same technology has desensitized us to tragedy on a smaller, human scale. So the current conventional wisdom would have us believe.
By those standards, then, a lone tanker driver who didn’t make it home to his family for dinner one evening merits only a passing mention on the evening news and is all but forgotten by the following morning.
But here I am, still thinking about the unknown tanker driver. To be clear, I’m not obsessing about it, in some weird, neurotic way. I haven’t been walking around every waking moment with the image of the conflagration I saw in a passing glance at my television screen three weeks ago.
What I have been thinking about is the significance of that one human life … and death. Like just about everyone on the planet, the threat of death from the COVID-19 virus has been a part of my psychic landscape for the past year and a half. Everyone knows someone who has been impacted. The pandemic statistics continue to be the lead story on almost every newscast: huge numbers of people, in every country in the world, have died — and the media have been diligent to report it.
It’s true that we’re exhausted by it all, that we are all suffering to some degree from secondary traumatic stress. But I believe that the ability to empathize when someone else suffers is part of what makes us human. So I will continue to look behind the numbers for the real stories — the human stories — behind the statistics.