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Why do Americans die? Research finds media has little clue, largely reporting on subjects that don't affect citizens' mortality

The project by researchers at University of California San Diego analysed Google searches and the article databases of The New York Times and The Guardian
UPDATED JUN 12, 2019

Terrorism, homicide, and suicide find much more attention in the US media and Google searches by Americans as compared to their relative share of deaths, reveals a new analysis by researchers, which highlights the striking disparity between what Americans die from and what gets reported by the media.

The research attempted to investigate and answer the causes of death among Americans and whether media coverage represents an accurate picture of the same. It turns out, certain types/causes of death fascinate the media much more than others.

The project, titled Death: Reality vs. Reported, by students of University of California San Diego for a cognitive science course found considerable discrepancies in media coverage of terrorism, homicide, heart disease, and kidney disease.

Kidney diseases (11 times) and heart diseases (10-fold) were the most underrepresented in the media. The findings show that in sharp contrast, terrorism is 3900 times overrepresented in news, while it is 31 times in the case of homicides.

"The attention given by news outlets and Google searches does not match the actual distribution of deaths. The general public sentiment is not well-calibrated with the ways that people actually die. Heart disease and kidney disease appear largely underrepresented in the sphere of public attention, while terrorism and homicides capture a far larger share, relative to their share of deaths caused," said the researchers in their analysis.

The researchers attempted to answer the questions: how do people die, how do people think they die, and is there a difference. The study then investigated if there exists a disconnect between what one sees in the news and what happens in reality.

To answer these questions, the project assessed and compared four critical sources of data: the Centers for Disease Control or CDC's (WONDER or Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research) database for public health data (1999-2016), Google Trends search volume (2004-2016), The Guardian's article database, and The New York Times' article database. For each, the relative share of deaths, share of Google searches, and share of media coverage, were calculated.

The authors in their study said that when they assessed all causes of mortality as given by CDC, they found that cancer and heart disease occupy a significant chunk, each accounting for about 30% of the total deaths.

Terrorism accounted for a small portion of the death count as compared to diseases/other causes mentioned by CDC. They next evaluated the Google trends data and found an overrepresentation of terrorism and underrepresentation of heart disease.

"Suicide also looks like it has several times more relative share here than compared to the actual death rate. The rest of the causes look like they are within the right order of magnitude as the CDC data," said the study.

News coverage in The Guardian and The New York Times were next investigated. The coverage was similar, found the researchers. What is further striking is that terrorism, cancer, and homicides were the causes of death that were most mentioned in the newspapers.

"Though the share that cancer occupies seems largely proportional, the share given to both homicides and terrorism appears grossly overrepresented, given their respective share of total deaths," said the analysis.

A blog post on the study in Our World in Data, said that "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% of Google searches and media coverage."

Our World in Data is a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Oxford, and Global Change Data Lab, a non-profit organization.

The post said that the most significant inconsistency includes violent forms of deaths - suicide, homicide, and terrorism - which have received much more relative attention in media coverage and Google searches as compared to 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% of the total deaths in the US," it said.

This is a visualization from Our World in Data on what Americans die from, what they search on Google, and what the media reports on. (Credit: Our World in Data)

The blog further said that according to the analysis, while just under one-third of the deaths came from cancer, Americans searched for cancer a lot, accounting for 37% of the searches. However, when it came to reporting, it received only 13-14% of media coverage.

Further, said the post, people searched for road incidents much more as compared to their actual share of deaths and such events also got much fewer media coverage. Google searches and media coverage on strokes were, however, 'surprisingly' balanced.

"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," said the post.

An earlier study, titled 'Newspaper Coverage of Causes of Death', had analyzed two newspapers and concluded that media coverage overreported homicides, suicides, and disasters, while it underemphasized diseases as causes of death.

"Whereas all diseases took about 16 times as many lives as all accidents. There were more than three times as many articles about accidents in which almost seven times as many deaths were noted. Although all diseases claim almost 1000 times as many lives as do homicides. There were about three times as many articles about homicides than about all diseases. Furthermore. homicide articles tended to be more than twice as long as articles reporting deaths from diseases and accidents," the previous study had concluded.