Media and readers stuck in a reinforcing cycle

Our World in Data has an interesting post on whether the news reflects what people in the US die from. The media brings us ‘breaking news’ of single events that are, usually, negative. Longer term, large-scale trends of progress never make the click-bait or the headlines. So they investigated whether there was evidence of a disconnect between what was in the news and what was reality for most Americans.

One study attempted to look at this from the perspective of what we die from: is what we actually die from reflected in the media coverage these topics receive?

So, what do the results look like? In the chart below I present the comparison.

Large image

The first column represents each cause’s share of US deaths; the second the share of Google searches each receives; third, the relative article mentions in the New York Times; and finally article mentions in The Guardian.

The coverage in both newspapers here is strikingly similar. And the discrepancy between what we actually die from and what we get informed of in the media is what stands out:

  • around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage;
  • just under one-third of the deaths came from cancer; we actually google cancer a lot (37 percent of searches) and it is a popular entry here on our site; but it receives only 13-14 percent of media coverage;
  • we searched for road incidents more frequently than their share of deaths, however, they receive much less attention in the news;
  • when it comes to deaths from strokes, Google searches and media coverage are surprisingly balanced;
  • the largest discrepancies concern violent forms of death: suicide, homicide and terrorism. All three receive much more relative attention in Google searches and media coverage than their relative share of deaths. When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US.
  • What’s interesting is that Americans search on Google is a much closer reflection of what kills us than what is presented in the media. One way to think about it is that media outlets may produce content that they think readers are most interested in, but this is not necessarily reflected in our preferences when we look for information ourselves.

As we can see clearly from the chart above, there is a disconnect between what we die from, and how much coverage these causes get in the media. Another way to summarize this discrepancy is to calculate how over- or underrepresented each cause is in the media. To do this, we simply calculate the ratio between the share of deaths and share of media coverage for each cause. […]

Corner of chart above, expanded to see the notes.

The major standout here is terrorism: it is over represented in the news by a factor of almost 4000.

Homicides are also very overrepresented in the news, by a factor of 31. The most underrepresented in the media are kidney disease (11-fold), heart disease (10-fold) and, perhaps surprisingly, drug overdoses (7-fold). Stroke and diabetes are the two causes most accurately represented.

Media and its consumers are stuck in a reinforcing cycle. The news reports on breaking events, which are often based around a compelling story. Consumers want to know what’s going on in the world — we are quickly immersed by the latest headline. We come to expect news updates with increasing frequency, and media channels have clear incentives to deliver. This locks us into a cycle of expectation and coverage with a strong bias for outlier events. Most of us are left with a skewed perception of the world; we think the world is much worse than it is.


It would be most interesting to see a similar comparison for New Zealand.