X Close

In praise of media scare stories

Credit: PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images

June 18, 2019   3 mins

Here is the news: on the whole, there isn’t any. In most places, at most times, nothing unusual is happening. What we call the news is, necessarily, a distorted representation of reality.

It is therefore no surprise that when the folks at Our World in Data compared the media’s coverage (specifically, in the New York Times and The Guardian) of various causes of death with mortality statistics for the general population they found a mismatch. They also looked at causes of death through a third lens – online searches by the public.

The findings are summarised on the site in an article by Hannah Ritchie:

“…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)… but it receives only 13-14 percent of media coverage…”

This is pretty much as one might expect. Specific incidences of death caused by a common disease do not generally make the news – except in the case of famous individuals.

As for online searches, one would expect the public to turn to ‘Dr. Internet’ if they have concerns about their own health or that of people they know – and, given the wide range of possible symptoms and warning signs associated with cancer, it’s not surprising that it prompts a disproportionate share of searches.

Then we come to the most dramatic findings:

“…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.”

Ritchie says that compared to what actually happens in real life, homicide is over represented in the newspapers by a factor of 31 and terrorism a factor of 4,000.

Ritchie does acknowledge what she calls the “very nature of news”. As the word makes clear, news is all about novelty and therefore the unusual, the sudden and the spectacular. This, she says, leaves most of us “with a skewed perception of the world; we think the world is much worse than it is.”

Commenting on the Our World in Data study, Bill Gates was moved to tweet the following:

“I’m always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us… we must fight the fear instinct that distorts our perspective.”

But is it right to pathologise what Ritchie calls a “strong bias for outlier events”?

Weighing in on the debate, Nassim Taleb slammed the “naive empiricists” who equate the future significance of a danger with how common it happens to be over a particular period of time.

The most egregious example of this fallacy is a cheap trick that’s often pulled by faux sophisticates in the commentariat. This is how it works: firstly, look up the stats for some rare, but crushingly banal, way to die – like falling off a ladder or accidentally drowning in a bathtub. Then, tell your readers that they’re still more likely to die that way than be knifed by a mugger or blown-up by terrorist. Then reassure everyone that the country is not, in fact, going-to-hell-in-a-handcart and that all is well in the liberal paradise. Finish with a condescending quip about Brexit voters – and you’re done. File that column, sit back and bask in the respect of your peers.

Taleb exposes the flaws in this ‘thinking’. He does so by distinguishing between two domains of probability, which he calls ‘Extremistan’ and ‘Mediocristan’. Terrorism is an example of a risk that belongs to Extremistan. It may, at present, be small – but it has the potential to become massively and unpredictably more significant.

A single act of terror can pitch a nation into a series of foreign policy disasters, as with 9/11 and the US. An escalating campaign of terror (and counter-terror) can bring fear and division to an entire society as in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; or, yet worse, develop into a full-scale, bloody civil war – as it did in Syria. Crime, too, poses potentially systemic risks. If it gets out of control, the harm is not just to the immediate victims, but everyday life and long-term prosperity across an entire neighbourhood, city or country.

The same cannot be said of bathtubs or ladders. We may have the luck to live in a time and place where they kill more people than terrorists do, but the risks associated with their use belong to Mediocristan. This means that the most extreme scenarios really aren’t that extreme at all – society will not be rocked to its foundations by an uncontrollable epidemic of bathtub drownings, for instance.

Could it be that the general public has an instinctive sense of the risks that have the greatest potential to turn into catastrophe? If so, in pressing our buttons, the media is not whipping up scare stories – but acting as a means by which legitimate public concerns can be identified, amplified and pushed up the political agenda.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Rejoignez des lecteurs partageant les mêmes idées qui soutiennent notre journalisme en devenant abonnés payants.


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Savage
Paul Savage
4 years ago

Those who choose not to practice social distancing (whether over or under 70) are putting others at risk. If the Ro of this epidemic is somewhere close to 2.5 (which seems to be a reasonable estimate based on the evolution of the spread so far) then one infected person who continues to circulate will lead to 1500 or more cases within a month if they all also refuse to practice social distancing. The issue is not whether over 70’s should follow the guidance but why everyone else wouldn’t.