LIMA, Peru — Every day, over 150,000 people die. By the time you finish reading this piece, about 3,000 people would have died around the world — of ischemic heart disease, stroke, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, cancer, road injuries and many other causes. Which of these deaths make it to the news? What determines the newsworthiness of someone’s passing?
First of all, it depends on the position or status of the person. The deaths of celebrities, sporting superstars, royals, world leaders — all of them would make for breaking news should they pass away. When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, for instance, “the world seemingly grounded to a halt,” as Jimmy Sanderson and Pauline Hope Cheong (2010) reported in a journal article, adding that his death elicited a wide range of responses around the world, from adoration and empathy to proselytizing and condemnation.
Second, it depends on the manner of death. Of the over 4,000 people who die of tuberculosis every day, no one gets reported. And because TB is largely a disease of the poor, it is unlikely that any famous person will die of it. But when an Australian teenager eats a slug that brings him to a fatal coma, or when a Mexican woman falls to her death while doing yoga, it will likely circulate around the world. The more absurd the death is, the more newsworthy; you are more likely to make it to the news if you die while taking a selfie in a waterfall than if you get killed while engaging in environmental activism in the Philippines.
Sometimes, it also depends on the number of people who died — but in these cases, people don’t normally get reported as individuals, but are abstracted as a quantity, unless they have some distinction, e.g. fame or youth. This is true of plane crashes: Out of the 298 people who died aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the AIDS researchers — or the number of babies aboard — were the ones highlighted. Out of the over 1,500 victims of the Titanic, most attention was focused on a few of them, including multimillionaire John Jacob Astor IV. There are over 3,000 deaths due to road crashes everyday, but they only get reported if enough people die in one crash—or if there’s a famous person involved.
Finally, there are levels of newsworthiness. The death of a Dutch astronomer, an Ivorian DJ, a Brazilian novelist, a Jordanian princess — all of them will receive coverage in their home countries, but not necessarily globally.
Of course, focusing on a few fatalities is not just understandable but necessary: There is not enough space in all our newspapers to chronicle the deaths and lives of 150,000 people every day.
However, we need to recognize that media filters the world with its own bias for the novel and the unusual. While for the most part this bias is benign, it is worth noting that the new is not always relevant, and the relevant is not always new. In the Philippines, for instance, reportage on the drug war has slipped from the front pages to routine, almost clerical reports buried somewhere in the papers. This doesn’t mean the violence has lessened, or that the tragedy of the latter-day deaths has diminished. But if one were to judge from the news, one might reach that conclusion.
Ditto with public health matters: Deaths from new and dramatic outbreaks like Ebola are front-page material, while long-standing or “boring” diseases hardly any get coverage — even if, as in the case of tuberculosis, they’re actually far more significant.
We also need to recognize that we share this bias, and it may prevent us from seeing—and calling out—systemic inequalities, structural violence and government failures.
It may also prevent us from empathizing with people whose deaths we have come to perceive as “normal.” To paraphrase Stalin: The death of someone you know is a tragedy; that of someone you don’t know is a statistic.
Ultimately, we must untether newsworthiness from importance: I suppose this is what the reportage on death teaches us. Journalists will do well to reflect on this insight, which they probably know all along, but in our own ways, we can also respond by demanding justice for those who are unjustly killed, and by giving each death, reported or not, the dignity that every life deserves.
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