Tragedy and the News
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.
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.
Do the data on fatalities support this observation, that the lightly and under-reported fatalities represent frequent and recurring actual causes of death? Let’s look at the data to check.
The Spectrum of Death
We will start with six causes of fatalities receiving extensive and heavy reporting across essentially all levels and types of media, and look at fatality data for each. The six consist of the following, and will be referenced as “the first group”:
- Mass Shootings
- Police Fatalities
- Armed Forces Casualties
- Airplane Crashes
The fatality data below refer to the United States.
Weather – The National Weather Service reports a total of 9,714 deaths from weather causes for the 17 years of 2000 to 2016. The weather events include a comprehensive range, including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, heat waves, wind and so on. This covers directly attributed deaths. We can project an equal, or even greater, number of ancillary deaths, for example heart attacks from the physical or psychological stress of the severe weather, but not directly attributed to the weather.
Mass Shootings – A compilation by the group Violence Against Guns lists 1,086 deaths in mass shootings, including terrorist, from 2014 to 2016. Mass shootings, for their compilation, include incidents with 4 or more injuries or deaths.
Police Fatalities – Violence Against Guns also identifies that 259 police officers have died from gun attacks for the same three years. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund identifies a higher number, 416, for the three years. The later includes traffic-related and other causes, while the former focuses on gun related.
Armed Forces – In the major combat operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the armed forces, all branches, have suffered 6,918 casualties from 2000 through mid-2017. The figures include all causes, both those suffered in combat and those due to non-hostile incidents.
Air Plane Crashes – Crashes of all air vehicles, including helicopters and private planes, as well as commercial jets, have taken 9,925 lives in the U.S. from 2000 to mid-2017. Of the total, 1,264 involved six or more casualties in the incident. The NTSB report excludes casualties on the ground, so the totals here exclude the deaths of individuals in the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, but do include the passengers on the planes.
Assaults – Tragically, assaults took the lives of 15,872 individuals, in just one year, 2014, as reported by the Center for Disease Control, based on the data in the comprehensive compilation of all deaths in the universal reporting system. More than two-thirds of these fatalities resulted from firearms, and the victims averaged the too young age of 35.
This first group of causes of death did and do take a heavy toll of lives lost. And as exemplified by the young average age of assault victims, the causes cut off many years from the future of these victims.
Our goal, though, remains to gain perspective. Six other causes of death also impacted individuals in their early or middle life, with the average age of infliction shown following the name of the cause. We will call this collection of six the “second group”.
- Pre-natal Issues – Average age less than one year old
- Birth Defects – Average age less than 30, with half or more less than 15
- Suicides – Average less than 50, with half done with firearms
- Auto Accidents – Average less than 45
- Drug-Related – Average less than 45
- Drowning – Average less than 40
The six causes of fatalities produced their own toll of victims, as follows, for one year, again 2014, as reported by the CDC.
- Pre-natal Issues – 11,897
- Birth Defects – 9,609
- Suicides – 42,826
- Auto Accidents – 35,398
- Drug-Related – 42,032
- Drowning – 3,406
We do not want to venture into judgments of the value of one life verses another, or whether one cause of death stands more noble or tragic than another. However, we can — and must — observe that the loss of life from the second group of causes produces deaths with noticeably more frequency than the first group. The second group kills order-of-magnitude 100 thousand individuals a year, more than the first five of items in the first group killed since 2000, and well more on a yearly basis that the sixth item, assaults, of the first group.
In contrast to the greater number of fatalities, media coverage of the second group runs significantly lower that the first group. The second group accounts for hundreds of fatalities a day. But accounts of individual deaths in the second group break through into national coverage only sporadically, a couple dozen times a year, mainly related to noted individuals or celebrities. Even at the local level, five of the six categories, all except auto accidents, receive only occasional reporting of individual incidents. Now, auto accidents do garner significant local news coverage of singular deaths; however, that coverage, if one watches for a period days, runs lower and with less priority that murders and even non-fatal crimes.
As noted before, this levels no criticism at reporting on airplane crashes, or mass shootings, or the heroism of first responders and armed forces personnel. And issues such as drunk driving, and birth defects, and gun-related suicide, and pain killer deaths, do receive periodic reports.
Consider, though, that a mass shooting can trigger hours of continuous coverage, and a commercial airplane crash can merit mention for days, weeks and even months. In contrast, we may have not seen a news spot or special report on non-celebrity drowning or suicide in the last month or year, and if so, a relatively brief mention. We may remember a sporadic in-depth report on pre-natal deaths or birth defects, but likely never a current news spot reporting the deaths of that day on those causes. Rarely if ever does a reporter go to a hospital and interview doctors for items in the second group, while dozen of news reporters will seek same-day comments from medical personnel for terror attacks and mass shootings.
A third group covers the largest count of deaths, a group consisting essentially of medical causes. While the first group totaled 10 to 20 thousand deaths a year, and the second group 100 plus thousand deaths a year, this third group causes, currently, two million U.S. deaths a year. This group consists of six major groupings of medical conditions, with the numbers below showing the 2014 death toll:
- Cancer (all organs) – 591,000
- Heart (including circulatory conditions) – 807,000
- Lung (including influenza) – 258,000
- Brain (including stroke) – 120,000
- Other Organs (liver, kidney, prostate, digestive) – 96,000
- Other Conditions (diabetes, other infections, anemia) – 172,000
The average age for these causes generally exceeds 65, to the degree that offers a perspective. Notably, the 2014 data show 50 thousand deaths from these causes for individuals between 15 and 45, and 400 thousand deaths for individuals between 45 and 64.
In terms of media coverage, on a per death basis, and a gross basis, the causes of death in this third group receive very little coverage. Again, this does not imply those incidents in the first group should receive any less coverage. But the qualitative observations in the earlier sections of the discussion, and the quantitative discussion here, shown an almost inverse relationship between the amount of media coverage, and the numbers of deaths for a given cause.
Does this influence our actions? To that we now we turn.
The Efforts for Preservation
Everyday conscientious individuals work to preserve life, forestall death and extend our years. And no doubt these efforts extend across all causes of death.
But, some efforts receive more attention than others.
Our candidates for office focus, rightfully, on funding for first responders, on the safety of our neighborhoods, and on the readiness and actions of our armed forces to thwart terrorist threats. Similarly, the elected officials in our legislative bodies debate, unfortunately not always reaching consensus, on laws and steps to prevent horrific mass shootings, or possession of fire arms by criminals, gang members and mentally unstable.
We do not see the same intense political focus on preventing the mentally distraught, as distinct from the mentally unstable or morally wicked, from use of firearms for suicide.
The media provide a service by highlighting what we can do and to whom we can contribute to provide relief from all range of natural disasters. And of course natural disasters not only bring casualties, but enormous and wrenching physical and economic damage.
The media do not highlight extensively or as assuredly what we can do or to whom we can contribute when heart attacks, or industrial accidents, or auto accidents, take the life of a family breadwinner, leaving children and spouses not only in grief but in financial distress.
Our corporations generously contribute to charitable causes, in great amounts, and run, occasionally, ads supporting life-savings efforts and organizations. But by-and-large the advertising and marketing of those organizations goes to their products and services, to the improved formulation of laundry detergent, or the upcoming season’s fashion accessory, or the added feature on the newest electronic device.
Our own actions likely reflect the media emphasis. We may have written our mayor in support of bullet-proof vests for our police officers. We may have stocked food for disaster preparedness. We may sit in certain seats in a plane in case of a crash. We may have prayed for the lives of our fallen soldiers. We have likely contributed food, or clothes, or money, for disaster victims. We may even have purchased a gun for protection from an armed robbery.
But I must say I have rarely thought about, and likely many of us have similarly not thought extensively about, the adequacy of the suicide prevention programs in the local schools. Nor have we likely considered the trade-offs in giving heart defibrillators to high risk individuals and associated training to relatives. Nor do most of us know whether a Congressional committee has studied if other nations have better cancer prevention. We likely have done none of these in part because doing so involves complexity but also because media reporting does not mention such steps.
Similarly, we likely face the miasma (aka impenetrable fog) of government budgets, and the counterpart budgets of corporations for development, and of universities for research. What do we know about them? How effective are they? What and who determines their content and sets their funding? But these efforts are critical to life saving. Auto safety programs, cancer cures, heart attack preventions, drug rehab programs, and dozens of other efforts depend on and are run by government, corporations and universities. But we know, in the general public, little about them, and thus about their efficiency and effectiveness.
Media focus on terrorism provides insights into police effectiveness for security; lack of media focus on routine deaths results in minimal, if any, insight into budgets for important life saving programs in government, corporations and universities.
I do not criticize here. Candidates should discuss funding for police; media should publicize agencies accepting donations for hurricane relief; corporations can be allowed to advertize their product. And certainly our personal actions are legal and sufficiently reasonable.
But we do see a relation, or at least a correlation, between the media reporting on the causes of fatalities, and the attention given to prevention. The attention tends to follow, at time strongly, the level of reporting. This supports our concern, that media reporting, and likely other factors, skews actions against deaths, at least slanted enough that an equalizing becomes warranted. And equalizing not through lessening current actions against causes receiving emphasis, but through more action on those causes not receiving as much emphasis.
Equalizing the Balance
Almost all of us, at some time, have experienced a tragic incident, a local, individual one, an incident beneath the radar of media reporting. The incident occurred to a family member, or neighbor, or worker, or friend, or just in our neighborhood. And the incident involved a heart attack, or an auto accident, or a miscarriage, or a cancer. And we wonder why it had to happen, and question what could have been done, and how those impacted will carry on.
Similarly, we each face risks of death, from similar, individual, less-reported causes, again below the media radar. Thus, our greatest risks lie not in plane crashes, or storms, or even shootings, but rather in the typical causes. For the ages of 45 through 64, medical conditions — cancer, heart disease, kidney issues, diabetes — lead by far the causes of death. Even in the younger ages of 25 through 44, medical conditions continue as a leading cause of death, but joined by auto accidents, suicide and drug overdoses.
Thus, both as we look backward at deaths we know personally, and forward at the most likely causes of our death (and maybe more pointedly the likely causes for our family and loved ones), those causes lie not in the highly reported or unique incidents, but in typical, recurring conditions.
This personal perspective gives us a basis from which to adjust our balance. As we absorb the daily media reporting of armed murders, or become captured by the continuous coverage of a terrorist attack, or hear ongoing segments on the investigation of a mass shooting, we can balance that perspective with our own personal experience of how those around us passed, and how we most likely might die, which will, with high certainty, not be through those causes that draw heavy media coverage.
With an adjusted perspective we can adjust our actions, not to care or do less but to add to the concerns and actions we take to forestall fatalities.
Thus, we may hold on to that solicitation from a charity doing heart research and send back a check for several dollars. We may ask an election candidate about their proposals for preventing suicides among our high school and college students, or improving first responder technology for heart attack victims. We may check off yes at the checkout of the grocery store on a request to give a few dollars to child cancer prevention. We may write an email to the local TV station asking for broader coverage of drunk driving deaths. We may download a report on government cancer research or search a medical condition on the internet.
Similarly, we may develop a more nuanced assessment of government and corporations. If we just take a cursory approach, maybe we view the first of these as inefficient and bureaucratic, and the second of these as greedy and uncaring. But government and corporations, with their size, resources, expertise and scope, can accomplish goals beyond our reach as individual citizens.
Consider, for example, that government can sponsor development of original equipment interlocks (i.e. not one that waits until a drunken driver is convicted, or worse injures or kills someone) to prevent drunken individuals from operating a car, and then issue recommendations and rules stimulating their introduction. Such technology now lies increasingly within reach, and, behind the scenes, work on this progresses. But no ground swell exists, no urgency has arisen, no Congressional hearings have made headlines, essentially no awareness exists.
Similarly, while you and I can not individually find cures for major diseases, corporations and universities can effectively work towards that goal. Media makes us aware when corporations produce a tainted product, or when universities become caught in a free speech dilemma surrounding a controversial speaker. But only minimal reporting occurs, and no ground swell has arisen, over whether corporate and university research on disease cures has progressed most efficiently or effectively.
Heart attacks stem from multiple causes — heredity, personal habits, daily stress, diet, environmental factors. Sixty thousand individuals between the age of 25 and 54 die annually from heart attacks and related circulatory conditions, and over a half million across all ages. The varied and complex causes of heart attacks, and the distinctions of the causes for the 25 through 54 group, mandate that varied and sophisticated measures are needed to reduce these deaths.
We do not, however, have extensive or detailed debate on stemming the toll of deaths from these medical conditions. Do we need more research? Would public efforts to change personal habits and diet prove effective? Should we regulate suspect components of food, and how critical a role does control of environment contaminants play? Does our current medical system properly diagnose heart (and cancer) conditions and effectively deliver preventive and reactive cures?
Given the current media slant to the unique and emotionally compelling (and the overwhelming, but understandable, emphasis of corporate advertising on their products), such a debate has not readily broken through to be a regular feature of media news reporting. But through our collective individual awareness, we hopefully could move the debate up a few notches. We can contribute, we can write, we can question, we can when watching the news simply interject that like everyone we abhor and detest terrorists and mass killers, but also have sympathy for those who die too young of heart conditions, or from suicide, or drunk driving. And that we have concern whether enough is being done to prevent such deaths.
Consider a final scenario. Imagine we received, each day, or maybe each week, a short personal news briefing, five to ten minutes, on deaths of people our age, or in our occupation, or in our neighborhood, or the ages of our spouse, or children, or siblings, or parents. We might see fatalities from weather, or terrorism, or mass shootings. Overwhelmingly, though, these briefings would show deaths from heart attacks, cancer, auto accidents, lung disease, suicides, drowning, elderly falls, and the like and only rarely deaths caused by mass shootings, air crashes, weather and terrorism.
Imagine every adult received such a briefing, across the country, in all the towns and cities and states. Maybe individuals would begin to ignore the briefing, but maybe, and I would judge very likely, the national discussion would shift, as would our individual actions. We would be no less concerned about terrorism, but become much more concerned about actions, public, corporate, academic and individual, to reduce and survive from heart attacks, or to uncover the hidden, complex indicators of an individual ready to commit suicide, or to understand whether and what items trigger cancer, and eliminate or forestall them.
Death stalks us all. The media reports for us the doors through which many horrific causes of death enter our world. But we should be mindful of all the doors, all the causes, through which death can come, and for our sake, and the sake of our family, friends, neighbors and people in general, look to be vigilante, and to take actions, to close them all.