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Not all deaths are equal: How many deaths make a natural disaster newsworthy?

Our World in Data presents the empirical evidence on global development in entries dedicated to specific topics.
This blog post draws on data and research discussed in our entry on Natural Catastrophes.

How many deaths does it take for a natural disaster to be newsworthy? This is a question researchers Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg asked in a 2007 study.1 The two authors found that for every person killed by a volcano, nearly 40,000 people have to die of a food shortage to get the same probability of coverage in US televised news.2 In other words, the type of disaster matters to how newsworthy networks find it to be. The visualizations below show the extent of this observed “news effect”. The first chart shows the proportion of each type of disaster that receives news coverage, and the second shows the “casualties ratio”, which tells us—all else equal—how many casualties would make media coverage equally likely for each type of disaster.

The study, which primarily set out to examine mass media’s influence on US natural disaster response, considered over 5,000 natural disasters3 and 700,000 news stories from the major US national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN) between 1968 and 2002. The findings tells us, among other important things, that networks tend to be selective in their coverage in a way that does not adequately account for the severity and number of people killed or affected by a natural disaster.

Instead of considering the objective damage caused by natural disasters, networks tend to look for disasters that are “rife with drama”, as one New York Times article put it4—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes all make for splashy headlines and captivating visuals. Thanks to this selectivity, less “spectacular” but often times more deadly natural disasters tend to get passed over. Food shortages, for example, result in the most casualties and affect the most people per incident5 but their onset is more gradual than that of a volcanic explosion or sudden earthquake. As a result, food shortages are covered only 3% of the time while a comparatively indulgent 30% of earthquakes and volcanic events get their time in the spotlight. Additionally, when the researchers “hold all else equal” by controlling for factors such as yearly trends in news intensity and the number of people killed and affected, the difference in coverage is even more pronounced. This bias for the spectacular is not only unfair and misleading, but also has the potential to misallocate attention and aid. Disasters that happen in an instant leave little time for preventative intervention. On the other hand, the gradual disasters that tend to affect more lives build up slowly, allowing more time for preventative measures to be taken. However, in a Catch-22 situation, the gradual nature of these calamities is also what prevents them from garnering the media attention they deserve.

There are other biases, too. Eisensee and Strömberg found that while television networks cover more than 15% of the disasters in Europe and South Central America, they show less than 5% of the disasters in Africa and the Pacific. Disasters in Africa tend to get less coverage than ones in Asia because they are less “spectacular”, with more droughts and food shortages occurring there relative to Asia. However, after controlling for disaster type, along with other factors such as the number killed and the timing of the news, there is no significant difference between coverage of African and Asian disasters. Instead, a huge difference emerges between coverage of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific on the one hand, and Europe and South and Central America, on the other. According to the researchers’ estimates, 45 times as many people would have to die in an African disaster for it to garner the same media attention as a European one. The visualizations below illustrate this bias.

ABC News’s slogan is “See the whole picture” and CNN’s is “Go there”, but good follow-up questions might be: what exactly, and where?