Steve has a point: the only way a hiker gets his name in the paper is when he dies dramatically, stupidly, wastefully, or otherwise -fully. (Although there are, ahem, exceptions.)
The problem with the blame-the-media argument is that it can be applied to pretty much everything, because the media deal in sensation — conflict, absurdity, pathos, voyeurism — because sensation draws eyeballs, and eyeballs keeps media people in rent and hiking shoes. If there were anything remotely newsworthy about the 150 hikes I’ve returned home safely from, well, trust me, I’d be making a lot more than $2 dollars a day in this blogging thing.
While it’s true that harrowing adventure tales scare some people away, these tales always attract people as well. We still had a Gold Rush despite tales of gunfights, wild Indians and grizzly bears.
I think a more pedestrian explanation for why fewer people camp and hike of late might simply be that people used to take their families hiking and camping because it represented a cheap family outing. These days, with affluence so much more widespread, people take their kids to Egypt or send them to space camps. They’ve got plenty of money, they don’t need to sleep in tents and hope their kids stay out of the poison oak.
As long as backcountry tragedies are still regarded as “news,” society is functioning about as normally as can be expected, given the limitations of the species that invented it.