Newspaper headlines don’t reflect the most common causes of death, but should they?

In the United States, deaths from 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 media coverage, which devotes far more coverage to violent death than to death by disease. (And Americans think crime rates are much higher than they really are.)

This discovery – which probably won’t surprise you – was explored this week in an article on Our World in Data. (Our World in Data is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the non-profit Global Change Data Lab.) Hannah Ritchie reviewed 2018 research published on Github by Owen Shen, a student at the University of California at San Diego. For his project, Shen pulled data from four sources: the CDC’s WONDER database for public health data, the Google Trends search volume, the Guardian articles database, and the New York Times articles. 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 3,900 times overrepresented.”

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

On the other hand: Should the media reflect what we are dying of? Dan Nguyen, a journalist and programmer at Stanford University’s Computer Journalism Lab, has a great thread on why it’s unreasonable to expect this (and why many readers might not even want it) .

And in a footnote, Ritchie poses the question: Should the media reflect what we are dying of?

There are many reasons why we would or should expect that what we read online and what is covered in the media is not what we actually die of.

The first is that we would expect there to be a preventive aspect to the information we access. There is a strong argument that the things we seek out and learn about encourage us to take action that prevents another death. There are several instances where I can imagine this to be true. People concerned about cancer can search online for advice on symptoms and be convinced to see their doctor. Some people with suicidal thoughts can seek help and support online, which later helps prevent death by suicide. We would therefore expect that intentional or unintentional exposure to information on particular subjects could prevent deaths from a given cause. A certain imbalance in the relative proportions is therefore logical. But there is clearly a bias in our concerns: most people die of heart disease (so this should be something that concerns us), but only a small minority seek [possibly preventative] information online.

Second, this study focused on what people are dying from in the United States, not what people are dying from around the world. Is media coverage more representative of deaths around the world? Not really. In another blog post, “What is the world dying of?”, I took a detailed look at the ranking of causes of death globally and by country. The relative ranking of deaths in the United States mirrors the global average: most people die of heart disease and cancer, and terrorism ranks last or second to last (alongside natural disasters). Terrorism accounted for 0.06% of global deaths in 2016. While we would expect non-US events to feature in The New York Times, global news should not substantially affect representative coverage of the causes. .

The third is related to the very nature of information: it focuses on events and stories. While I often criticize the messages and narratives portrayed in the media, I have some sympathy for what they choose to cover. Reports got faster and faster. As consumers of information, our expectations have quickly shifted from daily updates to hourly updates, to minute-by-minute updates of what’s happening in the world. Combine that with our attraction to stories and narratives. Not surprisingly, 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 audiences expecting minute-to-minute coverage, what can you say about kidney disease? Without overcoming our compulsion for the latest unusual story, we can’t expect this portrayal to be perfectly balanced.