The bias for sensational events

Hannah Ritchie from the “Our World in Data” team had a powerful post on our bias for sensational events. She analyzed the difference between causes of death covered in the news versus the actual causes of death. While the charts below cover data from the US, the trends are similar in other areas she’s analyzed as well.

This is a busy chart. So, here’s a simpler cut of what was over represented versus under represented.

Terrorism was ~4000x over represented in the news relative to the magnitude. Kidney disease and heart disease are far less newsworthy relative to their impact.

She ends with a lovely message about the challenges we (and the media) face.

“Media and its consumers are stuck in a reinforcing cycle. The news reports on breaking events, which are often based around a compelling story. Consumers want to know what’s going on in the world — we are quickly immersed by the latest headline. We come to expect news updates with increasing frequency, and media channels have clear incentives to deliver. This locks us into a cycle of expectation and coverage with a strong bias for outlier events. Most of us are left with a skewed perception of the world; we think the world is much worse than it is.

The responsibility in breaking this cycle lies with both media producers and consumers. Will we ever stop reporting and reading the latest news? Unlikely. But we can all be more conscious of how we let this news shape our understanding of the world.

And journalists can do much better in providing context of the broader trends: if reporting on a homicide, for example, include context of how homicide rates are changing over time. As media consumers we can be much more aware of the fact that relying on the 24/7 news coverage alone is wholly insufficient for understanding the state of the world. This requires us to check our (often unconscious) bias for single narratives and seek out sources that provide a fact-based perspective on the world.

This antidote to the news is what we try to provide at Our World in Data. It should be accessible for everyone, which is why our work is completely open-access. Whether you are a media producer or consumer, feel free to take and use anything you find here.”

Well said. And, big thank you to the “Our World in Data” team for the great work they do.