Monday, July 24, 2017

If It Bleeds (A Lot), It Leads

Over at Our World in Data, Sandra Tzvetkova, writes up a report about how different disasters are covered by television news. The original research was done by Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg.

By far the most likely way to get your death on television, apparently, was to be killed by a volcano. The researchers controlled for several factors, including the slowness of news coverage in May and June, for example. With all of those factors taken into account, their survey of national network news stories from 1968-2002 showed almost 39,000 people have to die from a food shortage or famine to get the same kind of coverage given to one person who died in a volcano eruption.

Tzvetkova theorized that the gradual nature of death from famine -- it's a problem that has to build up over some time -- makes it less visually spectacular than a volcano and thus the latter will get a lot more airtime. Starving people just tend to lay there, while volcanoes erupt and spew lava and everything.

Cultural critic Neil Postman made observations similar to this about local television news, writing through the 1980s and 1990s. Convenience store robberies and house fires offer much more arresting images than do city council meetings and zoning commissions, even though what's done at those will affect a lot more people than the robberies and fires. The need for eye-grabbing pictures means a reporter will do a live shot in front of a closed courthouse to report on a verdict that happened hours ago -- because the courthouse is a little more interesting than the station's newsroom set.

No doubt there are many good people at all levels of TV news, locally and at the network level. But this truth remains: If the verb that describes the bulk of your news and information acquisition is "watch," then you are not informed about the world as a whole or your own part of it.

(H/T Marginal Revolution)

No comments: