I have some personal experience with this. Haiti, the only country I’ve done much traveling in outside of America, is high on many lists of dangerous places due to its unfortunate history of political instability, widespread poverty, and natural disaster. I first traveled there for a two-week trip in 2012. I dutifully brought a fanny pack to carry my valuables (though I quickly figured out how to lengthen the strap and wear it as a cross-body bag—I’m really not hipster enough to rock a fanny pack). But after a few days in the quiet village that hosted my travel group, that bag got left lying around on front porches or in people’s houses on a regular basis. I frequently misplaced it, but it was always right where I left it, with my iPhone and cash intact.
Everything was fine until the last night of my trip, after we had left the village but before I got on a plane back to Philly. Some friends and I went night swimming and left our things nearby on the sand. Our stuff was in sight, but we were quickly distracted by the warm water and the buzz of several stiff drinks, and we when got back to the beach, our valuables were gone.
But here’s the thing: I wasn’t actually in Haiti anymore when this happened. I was in Miami for that last night of my trip, still far from home, but definitely on American soil. I had spent two weeks being lax about where I left my stuff, and it only bit me in the ass when I got back to my home country.
In his amazing book The Big Truck That Went By, journalist Jonathan M. Katz describes living through the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath as the only full-time American correspondent in the country. While news outlets around the world spread hyperbole about lawless chaos following the disaster, Katz witnessed the people of Haiti peacefully trying to survive and rebuild. Why don’t the media warnings seem to match with reality? Because fear-inducing news, whether or not it’s true, makes exciting headlines and captures the attention of the public. The result is that the media highlights the scary side of foreign places—especially those with high rates of poverty or large non-white populations—instead of giving useful, accurate information. It preys on people’s fear of the unknown.
The media scaremongering isn’t limited to foreign countries, either. When I moved from Washington State to Philadelphia a few years back, there was a spate of news pieces about murders in Philly, which elicited well-meant warnings from friends. But while there is crime and danger in some parts of the city, it’s a perfectly safe place to live as long as you have a little common sense—though you’d never know that from watching the news.
Most major news outlets are trying to get clicks and ratings, not actually inform you about what’s going on in the world. So when deciding whether or not to visit a “dangerous” place, make that decision based on your own common sense, not what the media tells you. By all means, check out what’s happening in that country—you probably don’t want to go if it’s in the middle of a civil war, for example—and practice basic travel safety. But don’t let the bastards of mainstream media tell you what to do. Trust me, you’ll get better travel stories from an adventurous stint in a so-called dangerous place than from some boring, media-approved resort.
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master’s in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In addition to the written word, she loves social justice, fashion, philosophy, and travel. Check out more of her work at elysehauser.com.
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