Guide The News Where You Are

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People who are concerned about cancer may search online for guidance on symptoms and be convinced to see their doctor. Some people with suicidal thoughts may seek help and support online which later results in an averted death from suicide. Some imbalance in the relative proportions therefore makes sense. But clearly there is some bias in our concerns: most people die from heart disease hence it should be something that concerns us yet only a small minority seek [possibly preventative] information online.

Second, this study focused on what people in the USA die from, not what people across the world die from. Is media coverage more representative of global deaths?


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Not really. The relative ranking of deaths in the USA is reflective of the global average: most people die from heart disease and cancers, and terrorism ranks last or second last alongside natural disasters. Terrorism accounted for 0. The third relates to the very nature of news: it focuses on events and stories. Whilst I am often critical of the messages and narratives portrayed in the media, I have some sympathy for what they choose to cover. Reporting has become increasingly fast-paced.

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Combine this with our attraction to stories and narratives. The most underrepresented cause of death in the media was kidney disease. But with an audience that expects a minute-by-minute feed of coverage, how much can possibly be said about kidney disease? Without conquering our compulsion for the latest unusual story, we cannot expect this representation to be perfectly balanced.

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Media and its consumers are stuck in a reinforcing cycle. The news reports on breaking events, which are often based around a compelling story.


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  • 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.


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    • The responsibility in breaking this cycle lies with both media producers and consumers. Will we ever stop reporting and reading the latest news? 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. 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.

      James Robertson's 'The news where you are' (Scotland Yet)

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