750 words; 4 minutes to read

This post is drawn from a single graphic produced by the wonderful web site Our World in Data.  That site provides brilliant analyses of  large amounts of data, often over long periods of time, on many important issues (for example child mortality or environment), showing that often people are quite mistaken in their views of what is happening in the world and particularly.  In many cases the data show that there is room for optimism as well as unhappiness with the state of things.  As site founder Max Roser writes, “The world is much  better; the world is awful; the world can be much better.”

The graphic below was part of an analysis published in October, 2018, written by Hannah Ritchie, entitled ‘Does the News Reflect What we Die From?’


Some crime gets vastly too much attention

The analysis compares actual causes of death in the US with internet searches on the same topics, and then with the stories related to death in The New York Times and the (UK) Guardian newspapers, all using data from 2016. (The Our World post provides more information on data and sources.)

The most striking aspect of these comparisons related to crime is the gigantic over-reporting in these media of terrorism and homicide.  Terrorism accounts for a tiny proportion of deaths – about one one hundredth of a percent in the US and only .05% of deaths worldwide– yet made up a third or more of stories in the two newspapers having to do with death.  Homicide in the US is about 1% of deaths (and less than that in the world as a whole) but more than 20% of stories.  To put it another way, homicide gets about 30 times as much attention as it would if coverage were proportional to its occurrence, but terrorism gets nearly 4000 times as much! On the other hand, deaths due to traffic accidents get much less media attention than the numbers would suggest.

Drug deaths and disease under reported, suicide over reported

Drug overdoses as a cause of death were greatly underrepresented in the media in 2016, though that may have changed more recently as the opioid problem gets more attention.  Suicide is significantly ‘over reported’, while deaths from all kinds of diseases, which is what will happen to most of us, are very substantially under reported.

Interestingly, internet searches are actually much closer to reality than is media coverage.  Online searches seem to be more focused, not surprisingly, on people’s own lives, hence the significant attention to suicide and diabetes.

One finding that seems very hard to understand is the lack of attention both in searches and in the media to heart disease which remains the largest cause of death around the world.

Distorting effects of distorted attention

What these data seem to show is the media’s interest in what is dramatic and unusual, which reflects people’s interest in the dramatic and the unusual.  While understandable from the perspective of human psychology, this tendency has dangerous implications for public policy, especially in an area such as crime that is so laden with powerful emotions such as fear.  As considerable research has shown, people are very inclined to overestimate the frequency and hence the danger associated with events that are actually quite rare.  We spend huge amounts on efforts to prevent terrorism but not enough on efforts to prevent heart disease or diabetes, which end up killing vastly more people.  Also we may be more willing to restrict people’s freedom, for example through various forms of surveillance, in the name of preventing rare events.  The costs can end up being much greater than the benefits.

In a similar analysis, rich with data (from the US), The Appeal argues that inequality is a major cause of death because it in turn leads to more deaths from drugs, suicide, and diseases that are much more prevalent among poor people, and that targeting crime is looking in the wrong direction .

What can be done?

There is little chance that these imbalances are going to change any time soon.  Intense media coverage of certain crimes, such as murder, goes back centuries.  But it would be possible to have more of what Our World in Data provides – sources that provide a larger context on these events that help us put them in perspective.

As Ritchie’s post says, “As media consumers we can be much more aware of the fact that relying on the 24/7 news coverage alone is wholly insufficient for understanding the state of the world. This requires us to check our (often unconscious) bias for single narratives and seek out sources that provide a fact-based perspective on the world.”



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