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Friday, January 27, 2023

The media ignores the main but silent killers. that has costs

There are two kinds of people in the world: those whose deaths make the news and those whose deaths don’t. This, we believe, is obvious. However, we ignore what tells us the obvious: the news inverts the reality of death. Deaths from diseases (heart problems, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes) outnumber deaths from violence and disasters (homicide, terrorism, plane crash, earthquake) by several orders of magnitude. But the news pays infinitely more attention to the causes that kill a small proportion of us, and less and less to our biggest killers.

WHO data (for 2019) show that Alzheimer’s and other dementias are the seventh leading cause of death in the world. Ongoing research, the scientists say, shows that neurological disease is now a hidden epidemic and that modern life is a major contributing factor. Research also shows that dementia is not only claiming lives in far greater numbers, but that its victims are increasingly younger, people in their 40s. In any big city, the chance of you dying of Alzheimer’s is far greater than the chance of being murdered. But the headlines don’t tell you that. One murder makes a stir, a hundred scrambled minds don’t.

A study focusing on deaths in the US and the US media shows that while homicide, suicide and terrorism account for less than 3% of deaths, two-thirds of media reports on deaths are dedicated to these causes. This is true everywhere. The news has gone around the pyramid of death. Even within the coverage of violent deaths, there is an inversion. Globally, deaths from suicide are more than twice the number of deaths from homicide. As Yuval Noah Harari says, “Statistically you are your own worst enemy. At least, of all the people in the world, you are most likely to kill yourself.” But homicide gets far more media space than suicide. Here’s another telling stat: Between 1993 and 1996, the national rate Homicide rates fell 20% in the US, but over the same period, murder stories on major US television networks increased 721%.

There is scholarly scholarly work on the disconnect between causes of death and media reporting. But there is also a simple explanation: inverting the pyramid of death is the secret sauce of the news. Discrete events like a murder or a plane crash make storytelling easier than gradually unfolding events. Everyone likes dramatic stories, so the news business sells them. However, this is not free. Sustained focus on violent and disaster deaths can distort perspective: think of the contrasting public policy responses to terrorism, which ranks at the bottom of all cause-of-death lists, and dementia, which ranks among the top ten first.

There is a solution? Maybe. Journalists can add some perspective when reporting on violent deaths. For example, a story about a homicide in a large city might point out that, say, the year in question has seen 300 murders in a city of 15 million. Perspective will not kill news, it will make it better. The media can also report much more about what kills most of us. This will also attract attention, because it concerns us directly.

Most people don’t die from being in the news, but the way most of them die should be more news.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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