Newsworthy Deaths

Our World in Data has an excellent writeup of earlier research by Eisensee and Strömberg. 

How many deaths does it take for a natural disaster to be newsworthy? This is a question researchers Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg asked in a 2007 study. The two authors found that for every person killed by a volcano, nearly 40,000 people have to die of a food shortage to get the same probability of coverage in US televised news. In other words, the type of disaster matters to how newsworthy networks find it to be. The visualizations below show the extent of this observed “news effect”.

In other words, the famine you haven’t heard much about is more important than you think.


Now that Marshall McLuhan's birthday observance has passed, this illustrates: a) just how our media lie by letting their ability to "show" govern the "reality" they purport to depict, and/or b) just how bereft of message our media have become (McLuhan's "the medium is the message" has been displaced by "the medium is the medium"--there is no room left for message when the medium is pleased only to exhibit itself and its capabilities).

Do you fancy there was coverage proportionate to death tolls in 1920? Remember the aphorism attributed to a British newspaper editor: "50,000 wogs, 50 frogs, and 1 bloody Englishman!".

You're seeing a conspiracy where there is simple revealed preferences. WE, the consumers of news, want this, and the news media give us what WE want. You probably don't notice the effect, because you click on news stories about famines and terrorist attacks equally frequently. The rest of us don't have the same unbiased appetite for news, and can see this relationship more clearly.

My bias stems at least in part from having worked as a television news producer for three years.

OK, so you're at fault. Why should we listen to you?

You’re seeing a conspiracy where there is simple revealed preferences. WE, the consumers of news, want this,

See Rod Dreher on metropolitan newspapers and Michael Medved on the film industry. In media, production decisions can be surprisingly insensitive to historical experience or market research. Michael Medved and Richard Grenier built the case that Hollywood studios time and again greenlighted films in genres which bombed pretty uniformly. Dreher during his time on the editorial staff of the Dallas Morning News circulated memoranda suggesting the paper cover events you'd expect to be of interest to the paper's late-middle-aged suburban readers. The response from the reporters and editors was zilch. They covered what they felt like covering.

Demand never perfectly matches supply. With daily news, what survives is a mix of what the editorial staff and investors want to report on and people want to hear or read about. I'm sure the big investors behind outfits like the Washington Post also have influence on the content that isn't strictly consumer driven.

If the reporters deviate too far from what people want to hear or read about, it creates an opening for a competitor to take over.

" give us what WE want"

Corporate media targets the lowest common denominator in general consumer preference. That does not mean other significant preferences do not exist.
(McDonald's is by far the the most frequented restaurant in America-- is that because WE all overwhelmingly demand daily cheeseburgers & fries?)

90% of U.S. mainstream news market is controlled by a very few corporations who share the same worldview & biases (left of center). Their daily "news" is heavily filtered and assembled by ingrained "templates" of their groupthink worldview + the usual PT Barnum sensationalism that always sucks in the rubes.

McDonalds is absolutely a direct expression of consumer interest. Why else do people choose to buy food there? Sure plenty of people hate McDonalds, but every product has haters or at least has non-customers. McDonalds obviously isn't trying to compete in the high end haute cuisine space. They compete on cost, convenience, location, speed of service, brand consistency to travelers, appeal to children with happy meals, movie tie in toys, and playscapes. And they sell more than burgers + fries, their breakfast options are quite popular and their coffee is popular to certain crowds for example.

"WE, the consumers of news, want this, and the news media give us what WE want. "

Uh huh.

Only 6% of Americans consider Russia their top concern. Yet, in the month through June, the media dedicated 75% of their coverage to Russia.

Tragically, this bias/propaganda thingie has been the case for-freaking-ever.

Twain, "If you don't read the papers, you are uniformed. If you read the papers, you are misinformed."

Today, most of what you hear, read, see from the lying media (redundant) doesn't contain the iota of truth which typically inhabits the common lie (see Orwell).


I'm happy someone remembers McLuhan. As for the media, their power has been diluted. A small cabal no longer has a death grip on the national myth. We gave them a big middle finger in November and they are still stomping their feet like impetuous children. Let them hold their breath.

I fully expect CNN to soon have a graphic like "how many Americans died today as the result of a Trump policy today" at the top corner of the screen.

I am gonna die laughing.

The leftist panic is an endless source of amusement. I don't even have time for Netflix , everything I need is on Real Clear Politics! It's a free buffet of delight!

"I fully expect CNN to soon have a graphic like “how many Americans died today as the result of a Trump policy today” at the top corner of the screen."

I could imagine CNN taking a Federal estimate for the value of a life and then dividing any proposed spending cuts by the number and extrapolating deaths.

+1. Method!


News flash!

The media trafficks in stories and extensions of the mundane problems in living to be found in much of the world incorporate many tragedies but not much of a story. About 30% of the children born in Tropical and Southern Africa die before they reach school age. That's infectious ailments conjoined to malnutrition. The only mention you'll see of that in the media will be a feature story in the Times or the Post about the latest report of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

How many deaths will it take till he knows?

40,000. (Not 42.)

Starving people make us feel guilty for not doing something about it, so we prefer not to hear or read much about it. An earthquake or volcanic eruption or flood, in contrast, can't be blamed on us and doesn't make us feel guilty. The meaning of personal responsibility has evolved over the years, at one time being very personal then not so personal as the world became a much smaller place but now reverting back to the very personal. I suppose it's part of Cowen's cyclical view of history.

Art Deco: No. It's not true that 30% of sub-saharan african children die before school age. According to

the figure is 1 in 9. Pretty bad, but not 30%.

My figure was derived from comparing annual deaths to annual birth cohorts.

Gee, I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are major disasters in very short time spans, as compared with droughts and food shortages?

That's what I was thinking. Plot the coverage vs the frequency of the event.

They confined themselves to natural disasters, but I'm assuming terrorist attacks would be even more represented. London recently had a terrorist attack that killed 8 people and a fire that killed 80, and the terrorist attack was definitely covered more.

Your facts might be correct, but I know more about the fire, it's causes, the aftermath, the difference between money raised and aid provided the survivors.

But as a liberal, I guess I focus on matters where we the people can exert control.

Terrorists can be controlled as much as men with guns in the US using them to express with bullets what they can't with words and fists, a cultural norm in non-liberal circles.

I do diagnose famine as generally caused by the kind of governance libertarians advocate: no government, just free market individualism dog eat dog. Rule of money, and guns, not rule of law. The experts at AEI, Cato, Heritage never rush in to tell the masses who are refugees how great things are without government making things worse with handouts and taxes.

But that is the same with disease outbreaks. Why no anti-government advocates rushing in to organize non-government market based solutions at prices the people can afford?

To which famine are you referring? I have done a good bit of work with Doctors Without Borders and every famine that I have worked on was heavily involved in one or more governments disrupting the food supply and none of them seem to come from governmental breakdown. The current one in South Sudan appears to be directly related to the civil war. The one in Yemen is mostly due to the whole civil war thing again. Both of these conflicts, of course, stem from the central governments failing to win support from minority groups and/or actively oppressing them. Going back to the 2011 drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, etc. it was again an organized government, in this case Al-Shabaab that was disrupting food supply.

Both of these conflicts, of course, stem from the central governments failing to win support from minority groups and/or actively oppressing them.

A former president of Yemen referred to his job as 'dancing on the heads of snakes'. Some people are bloody refractory and 'winning their support' (as opposed to killing enough of their young men that they give up and go home) is not an option.

That study on newsworthy disasters was all before the wide use of the internet and twitter.

I can think of one disaster that continuously tweets and gets extensive news coverage from it.

We love our disaster because you hate him. The more you whine the more we laugh.


Nothing to be proud of, Russ. You folks are quite the statesmen.

You thought I was talking about Trump??

I was talking about Brad Pitt.

Pants on fire ...

I believe your God Emperor calls lying "truthful hyperbole". Or at least his ghostwriter did

Not my "God Emperor", but our gladiator. I don't like him, but I hired him to slash and burn.

So far he did two great things:
1. He defeated Hillary and thus denied her hangers/on their spoils.
2. Gorsuch

You don't hire a nursemaid when you need a warrior.

Why do you prefer Trump's hangers on to get spoils vs Clinton's?

Because as PJ O'Rourke said, "when Republicans ruin the environment, destroy the supply of affordable housing, and wreck the industrial infrastructure, at least they make a buck off it. The Democrats just do these things for fun."

1. I'd love to see 'terrorism act' versus 'mass shooting (non-terrorist)' graphed as well.

2. It would be interesting to also talk about frequency. How many storms are there that kill more than 280 people versus less? How many floods are there that kill 674+ versus less? Are those percentages very close to each other or do they vary

Surprised that no one has commented on the clear sampling bias risk. If an unknown number of small events is not being reported, then the real numbers required to get reported are HIGHER than shown.

It's a censored data problem.

There may be, for some of those, a tendency for the public to think "how do they know?" and "can I trust this source?"

Maybe it's a coincidence, but I think that question becomes more important the further right on the diagram you move.

Not a coincidence.

Shark attack! I bet every shark attack gets front page coverage. A shark attack on a Khardasian would set loose a whirlwind of journalism.

Especially if the shark spit her out because she tasted like silicone.

See, the robots already walk among us.

Lol, silicon indeed.

Have to confess I've been following this acid attack trend in London. 500+ acid attacks this year alone? Wth

A time series plot of the number of news stories about the death toll for the 2004 tsunami reveals that the newsworthiness really picked up about 36 hours after the first reports, when the reported toll was about 20,000. It leveled off at about 150 hours in when the estimated toll was 140,000, about half of the number which was eventually settled on. It would be interesting to look at the velocity of news for different disaster types.

Why stop there? For every person killed by a Trump tweet, an infinite number of people have to die of a food shortage to get the same probability of coverage in US televised news! What an amazing strawman of a null hypothesis.

You've fallen for the "hunger" advocates' favorite trick - thinking that their claims of millions of "hunger deaths" are evidence of staggering mass starvation. Here's a BBC article that will help you understand their ploy:

A couple of takeaways:

1) When The Lancet publishes "research" that's really just "I made a model after looking at some data and it predicts (a) vaccines cause autism, (b) 1 million Iraqi citizen deaths last year from Yankee violence, or, (c) 3 million hunger deaths last year" put on your skeptic's hat and recall that Lancet, NEJM and many other formerly prestigious journals were hijacked by people with an agenda long ago.

2) NGOs fight over every (estimated) dead body and as a result most are multiply counted. If food is scarce in a war torn region where malaria is endemic and a child dies because a weakened immune system meant medical help was needed but the rebels had blown up the hospital so the bug won then the hunger people, the peace people and the disease people will each lay claim to the corpse (for marketing purposes).

I'm not trying to minimize the hunger problem (it'll get much worse if the UN's population predictions for Africa are accurate) but hate seeing it distorted by "non-profits" with $1 million / yr CEOs. The scales fell from my eyes a few years ago when a rep for charity looking for a donation claimed that hundreds of Houston children were dying of hunger annually. When I asked for evidence to back up the claim it was again a model. Hunger causes a variety of maladies (mainly resulting in lower SES) and lower SES increases the chance of death so hunger causes x fraction of SES-related deaths. So, I demurred.

I think you should win the Cowenbel award for this post. I will submit my recommendation to the commiemitty. Good job!

Very good.

It's not that, for example, hungry children isn't a ghastly problem, it's that the hunger is defined by a partisan activist as insufficient arugula (I jest but you get the idea).

The Christian groups running starving children ads so donate a dollar a day seen to have vanished from late night TV. Is that a sign of partisan shifts?

It was one particular evangelical ministry which recruited Edwin Newman to narrate their infomercials. I've forgotten the name of it (bar that the corporate name included the founders moniker - i.e. it was something like "Don Stewart Ministries"). I had some dealings with them 20-odd years ago and concluded they weren't to be trusted. You can check places like Charity Navigator nowadays, though that service is not infallable.

To add to the list, the Lancet also published the famously debunked research on GMO potatoes.

+1. I've had experience with the Lancet before; they're a bunch of partisan ****s too blind to see their own bias.

Wasn't it Nassim Taleb (Matthew effect warning!) who said that anything you read in the papers should not make you afraid? Because newspapers overreport the anomalous risks (terrorists and Ebola) and underreport the mundane risks (ladders and bathtubs)?

Yes, falls are big risk for those of us raised on wonderbread; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Walter Cronkite. It all came on so fast. :(

Compare the extensive US coverage of the Fukushima nuclear plant with a death toll of zero to the 15,000 who died in the 2011 Japan earthquake that caused it.

You may correctly say that the nuclear accident was preventable, at least in hindsight. But the 15000 deaths were by and large preventable in hindsight, as well. It is really about the drama.

People are interested in odd things - who knew? It's almost as if they don't behave to maximize/optimize their own self-interest!

Seems like this is roughly in order of decreasing likelihood of causing non-fatal property damage. A volcanic eruption is pretty much uniquely able to completely destroy an area while giving the entire population enough warning to evacuate without any ability to prevent the damage or hope that it won't happen.

It wouldn't even things out entirely, certainly, but a metric not so specific to death would be much less extreme.

The overwhelming majority of human deaths aren't news worthy events. I suspect the news reporters are doing a decent job of reporting on what normal people care to read or hear about.

A lot of common petty murders aren't interesting at all to normal people and news doesn't cover them. High profile murders are. People care a great deal about the deaths of popular celebrities, and don't care at all about no name people experiencing similar deaths.

I imagine a Bryan Caplan would refer to this behavior as "innumerate", as an economist could any one single death as numerically equal to any other single death. Only the "innumerate" would have more concern over one death than another numerically equivalent death.

A lot of common petty murders aren’t interesting at all to normal people and news doesn’t cover them. High profile murders are. People care a great deal about the deaths of popular celebrities, and don’t care at all about no name people experiencing similar deaths.

There are homicides you can readily build a human-interest story around and there are homicides you cannot. The much-abused Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado were well-to-do petty rich burgesses known only to their own friends and relations, to a scatter of people in the software business, and to a tiny subculture enmeshed in the little-girl-pageant circuit. They were not 'high-profile'. Neither was the family of that girl who disappeared on Aruba in 2005.

Food shortage occurs mostly in countries with people of color. Democrats complain about the right-wing stealing from the poor to give to the rich - which is any situation when the right won't increase taxes on the rich in this country to help the poor in the this country. However, maybe unbeknownst to Democrats, the poor in the US are much better off than the majority of the world. And siphoning off taxes from the rich to give to the less rich in this country is simply stealing from the truly poor people outside the US. If you want to use the law of diminishing marginal returns to take from the wealthy in the US it should then be provided to the truly poor people in this world (Africa, Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, etc). And it won't be hard to find them, there are billions of them. As I stated in my first sentence, the world's poor are majority people of color and the Democrats in the US remain majority white.

And don't tell me international political borders prevent us from helping the poor of the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Kosovo, Black Hawk Down? We certainly don't mind "helping" the poor of the world with our military.

Food shortages also occur because of Socialism (see China's "Great Leap Forward" or present day Venezuela). NYT won't cover these inconvenient truths.

Cf deaths from Nazis vs deaths from Communists

Uncommon, acute (quick onset, short duration), and big = newsworthy. Newsworthy = readers/viewers want to read /see/hear. At least that's what editors and circulation directors believe. (Other things can be newsworthy too, of course, but ordinary things are not generally newsworthy). Scary things are often newsworthy. People want to know what to be on guard against, even if they sometimes over-react, as they often do (but also often under-react, especially when the danger is of "chronic", slow developing, ambiguous nature. "Better safe than sorry" seems to the the operative principle.
Having worked in the "news" biz, I also know that decisions are based on such considerations as (1) can we cover it at all? (2) can we get it soon? (3) can we afford it?

Volcanos are pretty awesome. Mt. St. Helens is an amazing sight even after all these years.

Wild animals killing people get a lot of coverage. They should have been included in the study. Drudge knows a lot about what people find interesting and he plays up headlines about sharks and tigers eating people.

You assume the causes are exclusive when they can clearly be combined for more newsworthiness ; like a SHARKNADO.

Now I must prepare a volcano to launch a wild animal into a celebrity for my YouTube channel.

Would also be fascinating to see this by country or region or even developed vs. developing countries. I feel that could be even more dramatic...

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