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A scare story is an article masquerading as a news report that distorts facts in order to induce fear or panic in the reader. Typically, scare stories are written both to increase readership/viewership by making the news seem more dramatic and exciting than it really is, and to advance the agenda of the publication or news outlet concerned. Scare stories abuse the trust many people place in the printed word and take advantage of uncritical readers to influence public opinion, at times very effectively.
Scare stories most commonly appear in the fields of politics and crime. A political scare story might latch onto a careless quote by a given politician, and extrapolate wildly in order to make it seem like he or she plans to do something outlandish and damaging if elected - for example, raise taxes or thrust large bags of money into the arms of borderline terrorist preachers. A crime scare story might typically report a genuine criminal case, but subtly shift the emphasis of the facts to make it seem like similar crimes are much more common than they really are.
Quite often, scare stories are also propagated by the anti-science movement. In the UK in recent years, genetically modified food, the MMR vaccine and stem cell research have all been the victims of scare stories exaggerating their supposed harmful effects, reporting biased scientific research, or pronouncing them dangerous before this has been adequately confirmed. Fringe scientists may be quoted as "experts" while the other side of the story is played down or completely ignored.
The following are features that may enable you to spot a scare story should you come across one:
- Headlines in the form of a question, - eg Does lacrosse cause cancer? (answer: no).
- First paragraphs containing phrases like 'Outrage was expressed at...' - this outrage is generally expressed by the reporter and nobody else.
- Views or facts that balance, oppose or undermine the overriding tone of the piece being placed in the last paragraph of the article when everyone has stopped reading.