Tragedy, fittingly but unfortunately, makes news.
When a terrorist attack slays innocent victims, the horror hits the headlines. When a random street shooting takes down unsuspecting bystanders, the killings elicit on-the-scene local news reports. When soldiers die in a combat raid, the casualties and bravery receive high mention and praise.
Not just these, but a wide, and horrific, range of similar tragedies draw essentially assured and often immediate media coverage — for sure the just mentioned terrorist attacks, street murders, and armed forces casualities, but also the calamities and heartbreaks of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, serial killings, mass shootings, explosions, plane crashes, disease plagues, famines, genocides, fatalities of first responders — we could go on. Almost without exception all segments of the media report, extensively, on these type incidents. Death cuts to the core of the human spirit. The media, both as a conduit and a reflection of the human condition, rightfully and respectfully report on these tragedies. We would and should expect no less. Heavy News
But not all tragedy makes news; media reporting of fatalities does not encompass the larger, more extensive range of deaths. A million people in our country die annually of cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, year in and year out. Daily, by the hundreds, the unlucky or in too many cases imprudent die in auto accidents, the despairing at their own hands in suicide, the elderly in falls, and the young of prenatal complications and birth defects.
This larger, wider group of casualties does receive, at times, media coverage, as well as periodic and in-depth special reports, and we react to these casualties with the same empathy, concern and sorrow as the more often reported types of tragedy. But clearly, media reporting of deaths from this latter group of causes, deaths from cancer, or strokes, or elderly falls, or suicides, that reporting runs lower overall, and much lower on a per death basis, than the reporting garnered by the headline incidents mentioned earlier — the killings by terrorists, the murders from street violence, the deaths in combat, the fatalities of a mass shooting, the victims of plane crashes.
This does not seek to assail or denigrate or criticize the important and critical reporting of the tragic and deadly incidents the media does cover, nor does this argue for any less coverage of terrorist attacks, or natural disasters, or casualties among our armed forces and first responders. This coverage pays respect and reverence to the unfortunate and in too many cases innocent and unsuspecting victims. And the coverage stirs us to action — to strengthen our defense against terror, to donate, to volunteer, to improve safety, to hold our government accountable, to demand better actions of our corporations, to improve our disaster preparations, to change our habits, or to simply learn and understand.
And if we find ourselves overloaded by this coverage, we can turn away for a respite. But if we lacked coverage, we couldn’t fill the void.
So why raise this strong concern about the differing levels, dare say drastically differing levels, of coverage of the diverse segments of the spectrum of deaths?
Why? Because if we truly desire to prevents deaths and preserve life, we must check. We must check whether differing levels of reporting on different causes of death and fatalities, whether those differing levels lead us to miss, possibly unintentionally, critical and important lifesaving efforts. Do we neglect or overlook actions and programs that could be taken to forestall and reduce casualties?
The Attributes of Newsworthy
Let’s start by examining what about an incident makes it newsworthy, what raises a story to the threshold warranting reporting.
To start, as a fairly obvious point, being newsworthy implies just that, being new, sometimes absolutely new, like a new discovery, but more often new, different, unusual, referenced against the normal course of events. The incident must rise above the immense background of innumerable events occurring normally, every day, multiple times a day, in multiple locations.
Consider, for example, trees. Lumber companies harvest, hopefully in an environmentally sound way, millions of trees a year — nothing special, not often reported. However, when one of those harvested trees will serve as the centerpiece of the holiday display say in Washington DC’s Ellipse, that singular tree will, very likely, merit media attention. Thus, similarly, in terms of the tragic, reporting goes not to the millions of acres of forests where trees grow, uneventfully, a bit each day, but rather to those several thousand acres that erupt into deadly and destructive forest fires.
Think of our commutes and travel for work and business. Thousands and thousands of planes, trains, buses and subways complete their journey each day successfully, though more often than desired subjecting the passengers to annoying, but minor, inconveniences. Reporting though centers on those few journeys which do not reach their destination, through a crash, or derailment, or need for emergency evacuation.
What other key attribute elicits strong reporting? Human poignancy. The upstanding cab driver who works tirelessly to return a priceless violin left in the taxi, such an incident draws news attention. The beauty of the Cherry Blossoms, again in Washington, DC, and again to use another example involving trees, strikes us with charm and grandeur, and as such can become a photo or video feature in the media.
On the tragic side, the poignancy runs darker — incidents of appalling injustice, or terrifying vulnerability, or mystifying origin. Terrorism rivets us on all these dimensions. We cringe at unfairness heaped upon the innocent victims and the barbaric psyche of the slayer; we find ourselves feeling no place lies outside the reach of such acts; and we can not relate or understand how or why a person could justify their killing actions.
News also seeks to prepare us, and to inform us, of events with major impacts. We receive daily weather and traffic reports, in tight snippets when conditions run about normal, but when the traffic or weather hits the extreme — a truck explosion shuts down the entire expressway, or a winter snowstorm threatens deep snow, heavy drifts and high winds — the coverage expands, both to prepare us and to report the impact.
We can now, at a broad level, comprehend the differing level of coverage across the spectrum of tragedies and death. We can do so since, at a broad level, we see a subtle, or maybe not so subtle, distinction in media news coverage. That coverage focuses not just on events within certain categories. Rather, in a good measure, news reporting picks out events, across any and all categories, with the high profile characteristics detailed above.
Consider politics and government. Much about these items, say the innumerable pages of the Federal Register or the multiple and daily speeches in the halls of Congress, goes by with little reporting.
But if a scandal emerges, reporting often follows. Scandal rivets us, with its confluence of deceit and privilege and special influence. That poignancy triggers news attention. Thus, the media details and exposes the private plane junkets of a Congressional representative, or the expensive luxury upgrades of the office of a public administrator, or secret meetings of a campaign official with foreign operatives.
But by-and-large the media will bypass stories of less human interest and emotional content. Consider the last time we might have come across a news feature on whether alternate algorithms for distributing medical research grants would improve post-surgical life expectancy for heart operations.
Let me not overstate the slant in media focus in death reporting. We certainly can find investigative reports on low profile incidents and causes. The media attention to the flamboyant, or extraordinary, or devastating, does not rule as an absolute. But certainly the tendency runs strong.
This strong tendency aligns with our hypothesis here, that news provides only a partial perspective on the spectrum of death. The news captures the extraordinary, the moving, the enraging, the highly impactful, the directly related to immediate preparedness, but misses to a large extent the typical, the recurring, the individually insignificant.
And from a pragmatic standpoint, many deaths fall into this later group, and thus in turn fall below the media’s radar. The deaths from strokes, and suicides, and cancer, and falls, and a whole group of similar daily, recurring, typical causes, these deaths sum collectively to an enormous toll. However, each death, taken individually, lacks, in the vast percentage of cases, the visibility, drama or uniqueness to break into the news cycle.