Friday, July 20, 2012

The News & Statistical Importance

If you don't live under a rock, you have probably heard about the shooting in Aurora, Colorado last night that resulted in twelve deaths. While this is certainly a tragedy and I do not mean to downplay that, it makes a good test case for an idea that I have had for awhile: the news media repeatedly focuses on spectacles to the detriment of statistically more important stories. Twelve people died; that's awful. But an average of around 1,300 people die every day in the United States from heart disease. Overall, homicide accounts for less than a percent of total deaths in the U.S., while boring disease like diabetes, Alzheimer's, & nephritis consistently rank in the top ten causes of death with several orders of magnitude more cases.

Suicide, by the way, is more common than homicide. You have more cause to be scared of yourself than anyone else.

So why does the media cover events that are, statistically speaking, trivial? The most obvious reason is the spectacle: people want to watch terrible, fascinating news. They do not want to be told to exercise & eat less, even if those acts are more valuable than, say, eliminating homicide & manslaughter. But the nature of the truly important problems is also more ephemeral. Diseases & environmental degradation are problems that slowly insinuate themselves over many years. They do not appear suddenly wearing a Kevlar vest & gas mask, carrying an excessive number of guns, dropping a gas grenade on the floor. Perhaps it would be better if they did; people would care more & would have a obvious enemy to fixate upon. Instead, I'm subjected to hours upon hours of reporting this morning about an event we know so very little about & certainly don't know how to prevent in the future (no one's even been able to posit a motive yet, much less a solution, as opposed to the many diseases that have obvious vectors for improvement).

I have thus far only discussed the media's bias towards the spectacle, but there's also an obvious nationalist bias to our news. While twelve people died in a movie theater in Colorado last night, a quick search for Syria shows that over three hundred people died in clashes between the government and rebel factions there yesterday. In some ways, the local bias in news makes sense: one is naturally more involved in one's local community & can probably affect more change at a local level. But it's evident that American news is extremely biased towards American deaths. On the whole, that's a mistake, because we're all human regardless of where we live. There is only one side & we are all on it, to quote Doseone.


My mortality data comes from the Centers for Disease Control's FastStats page on Deaths & Mortality. The best summary of causes of death I found was their overview of 2008 data (published in June of this year) in this PDF but a cursory scan of more recent years also shows that homicide is basically irrelevant relative to common & often preventable diseases.

For the death totals in Syria, nothing is certain but the Huffington Post reports 310 dead, for instance. As a fairly unobjective but still interesting metric of comparison: when I search for "Aurora shooting" in Google News right now while limited my results to the past 24 hours, I get 11,100 results, while simply "Syria" returns 8,790. Considering that Google News includes foreign sources (though my results are likely filtered to English-language news only), we can see that the local bias is not the only force at work.

Post Scriptum &/or Aside

This is my first post in about a month because I have been busy planning my wedding, attending & preparing for conferences, managing my RUSQ column, & wrapping up projects at work. I may retire this blog shortly. I started it at a bad time, given that I was finishing up my personal website which could easily host a blog. I will likely transfer over all my older posts.

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