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May 31, 2019, 10:29 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery
LINK: ourworldindata.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   May 31, 2019

In the United States, deaths caused by homicide and terrorism are extremely rare; the leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer. But you wouldn’t guess that by looking at mainstream news coverage, which devotes far more coverage to violent death than it does to death from disease. (And Americans believe crime rates are much higher than they actually are.)

This finding — which probably won’t surprise you — was explored this week in a post on Our World in Data. (Our World in Data is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the nonprofit Global Change Data Lab.) Hannah Ritchie looked at 2018 research published to Github by Owen Shen, a student at the University of California, San Diego. For his project, Shen pulled data from four sources: The CDC’s WONDER database for public health data, Google Trends search volume, The Guardian’s article database, and The New York Times’ article database. He found that “kidney disease and heart disease are both about 10 times underrepresented in the news, while homicide is about 31 times overrepresented, and terrorism is a whopping 3900 times overrepresented.”

Ritchie used Shen’s research to create new visualizations; here’s one:

On the other hand: Should the media reflect what we die from? Dan Nguyen, a journalist and programmer at Stanford University’s Computational Journalism Lab, has a really good thread on why it’s not reasonable to expect that (and why a lot of readers might not even want it).

And in a footnote, Ritchie asks the question: Should the media reflect what we die from?

There are several reasons we would, or should, expect that what we read online, and what is covered in the media wouldn’t correspond with what we actually die from.

The first is that we would expect there to be some preventative aspect to information we access. There’s a strong argument that things we search for and gain information on encourages us to take action which prevents a further death. There are several examples where I can imagine this to be true. People who are concerned about cancer may search online for guidance on symptoms and be convinced to see their doctor. Some people with suicidal thoughts may seek help and support online which later results in an averted death from suicide. We’d therefore expect that both intended or unintended exposure to information on particular topics could prevent deaths from a given cause. Some imbalance in the relative proportions therefore makes sense. But clearly there is some bias in our concerns: most people die from heart disease (hence it should be something that concerns us) yet only a small minority seek [possibly preventative] information online.

Second, this study focused on what people in the USA die from, not what people across the world die from. Is media coverage more representative of global deaths? Not really. In another blog post, “What does the world die from?,” I looked in detail at the ranking of causes of death globally and by country. The relative ranking of deaths in the USA is reflective of the global average: most people die from heart disease and cancers, and terrorism ranks last or second last (alongside natural disasters). Terrorism accounted for 0.06 percent of global deaths in 2016. Whilst we’d expect non-US events to feature in the New York Times, global news shouldn’t substantially affect representative coverage of causes.

The third relates to the very nature of news: it focuses on events and stories. Whilst I am often critical of the messages and narratives portrayed in the media, I have some sympathy for what they choose to cover. Reporting has become increasingly fast-paced. As news consumers, our expectations have quickly shifted from daily, to hourly, down to minute-by-minute updates of what’s happening in the world. Combine this with our attraction to stories and narratives. It’s not surprising that the media focuses on reports of single (inadvertently negative) events: a murder case or a terrorist attack. The most underrepresented cause of death in the media was kidney disease. But with an audience that expects a minute-by-minute feed of coverage, how much can possibly be said about kidney disease? Without conquering our compulsion for the latest unusual story, we cannot expect this representation to be perfectly balanced.

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