It was four-feet long, rusted, with a vicious-looking hook on one end; yep—it was a crowbar. My husband found it in our backyard, resting up against the fence like it had been there for years—belonged there. But we knew better.

Someone left it there in a big hurry. And (I ask) what business does a stranger have in a person’s backyard with a crowbar? I’m sure you can answer that yourself. Combine that with the fact that about a week later, West Des Moines police put out a warning about a series of break-ins and assaults—and, well, you can see why I was thinking it was somehow safer back when I lived in the country. Or was it?

Columnist Lenore Skenazy’s book, “Free-Range Kids” claims, among other things, that we don’t necessarily live in more dangerous times; it’s that we read about the dangers lurking, criminals prowling, predators preying around every corner more often. 

Having been in the news business for 25 years, I know that fear sells. Scare ‘em, get ‘em to watch, read, listen; convince them that if they don’t watch for your latest updates, they put themselves at risk. A kind of ongoing fear obsession ensues until they end up like my late grandmother (God rest her soul) who in Clarion, Iowa was so afraid of crime that she locked herself out of her own house at least 30 times. Did I mention she did that while she was standing on the front porch? She was not alone. 

Iowans love to be scared because ultimately, we live in a very safe place. That’s why a chance of a snowstorm in Iowa in the winter (um, imagine that?) gets top billing—and has people rushing to the grocery store to ‘stock up’ (heaven forbid they run out of luncheon meat and can’t make it to the corner handimart!). 

Using fear to sell a story is also why a story about a new flu strain gets ‘round the clock coverage’ and breathless updates from scientists who claim, although it is mild, it has reached pandemic stage and claimed (as of this publication) three lives in the U.S. Even though they say it is getting milder and could ‘ease in future weeks’, the newcasters flash a smile and say, with hurried emphasis-“but it could make a resurgence this fall”. Yes, Influenza-A gets headline coverage, but what’s even sadder is that perennial coverage of the regular flu that claims 36,000 lives a year ranks gets a ‘ho-hum, same ole’, same ole’ yawn from the media. (“The regular flu? What’s scary about that?”) Meanwhile, the facts that could actually ease fears, get little ‘play’ in the media, (check this out )

So then, I get back to this idea that today’s ‘Free Range’ children should be allowed to ride their bikes, walk to school in their own neighborhood and fear-mongering parents should loosen the reigns a bit. Skenazy says, “The crime rate today is equal to what it was in the 70’s. If you were a child in the '70s or the '80s and were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying you, your children are no less safe than you were. But it feels so completely different, and we're told that it's completely different, and frankly, when I tell people that it's the same, nobody believes me. We're living in really safe times, and it's hard to believe,” says Skenazy.

My 12-year-old daughter was the one who threw my own safety paranoia in my face. Even after I (calmly and without alarm) updated her on the importance of washing her hands and the crowbar incident last week, she said—with some eye-rolling, that ‘geesh Mom, don’t you think I know that? There are other things to be scared of, like my geography test this Friday on Canada.’ While that doesn’t address the crowbar issue, I guess I have to admit; a geography test is certainly bound to have a greater, ‘real-world impact’ on our kids than the journalist-induced fear frenzy of Influenza A.

Written by Laurie Johns
Laurie Johns is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.