Wednesday, April 18, 2007

what predicts how much coverage a tragedy gets?

iraq and virginia tech

So, the New York Times is currently running stories on its front page about 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech being murdered and 160 citizens of Iraq being murdered. Enormous tragedies, all, obviously. Yet, the VT shootings will presumably get at least 10x--and perhaps more like 100x--the total column inches of coverage in the NYT than these Iraq bombings will get (indeed, a telling part of the coverage of Iraq bombings is how commonly and easily they are lumped together).

I'm not making any judgment on the wrongness or rightness of this as a journalistic practice, but: I've always thought it would be interesting to do a study of the relationship between the number of deaths in a tragic event and the number of column inches a story gets, and then what are the other factors that lead events to get more or less coverage.

Even just for the deaths of individual soldiers, I think it would be an interesting graph to see how (I presume) coverage of individual soldier deaths has declined as the war has gone on, despite the rate of soldier deaths being, if anything, remarkable for their relative consistency over time.

I'm presuming there is research on this and it's more that I'm not aware of it. If anyone is and has pointers to finding it, let me know.


kristina b said...

Hi Jeremy - I discovered your blog because I recently started the long trek to becoming a sociology professor. I'm having a mid-life career change. So, hello! Now, on to the post at hand. I think that ever since the CNN-ification of war, Americans unconsciously expect a litany of bad news from the war. Death counts and wars go together. While I don't think that makes death from war any less tragic, particularly to the loved ones of the dead, it is nonetheless not surprising. No one thinks the soldiers in Iraq are safe. In contrast, it is extremely surprising for a 9:00 AM French class to report casualties. I'm just speculating, but I think it's that element of surprise that makes this "more newsworthy". Plus, I think it scares the hell out of people when this type of thing happens in the context of everyday life, and for CNN etc., fear sells. What's more interesting to me is the thread that seems to run between many of the major shootings today: antidepressants. I'm not saying this guy wasn't already mentally ill, but I've just finished David Healy's book about Prozac which taught me that in some cases antidepressants cause suicidal/homicidal "ideation" where none existed before... and no, I'm *not* a Scientologist!

eszter said...

A related issue I often wonder about (and I hope this is not too off-topic) concerns the focus on death tolls as compared to serious injuries. This is not to minimize the tragic aspect of deaths, but to point out that injuries can have very long-lasting effects on both the person and those around them. This gets some press time, but much less even though the repercussions are likely at least as severe in some cases.

kristina b said...

Indeed Eszter! I heard a positively heartbreaking account on NPR one day from a seriously injured Iraq war vet. One of the things he said that just shook me was that Americans need to figure out how to deal (socially) with disabled vets pretty quick, because thousands of them are pouring back from Iraq. I wish I could remember the exact number he said. I want to say 13,000, but I don't really remember (and I'm sure he was estimating anyway).

Yeah, it's not quite as sensational as 33 VT students shot in an unexpected way, but it's just as real of a social issue.

I'm not sure how one might study something like this, though. You could report what is covered by the news pretty easily, but not why (I think).

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you posted this, JFW, because I've been silently fuming about all of the media attention to the VT shootings, which is all out of proportion to the scale of violence in Iraq or in Darfur. When I was TAing international relations, a kid once told me that "yeah, an American life is worth more than 1000 Rwandan lives", and it really seems like the news media is operating on the same principle. I don't actually think it's so much the "surprise" factor that Kristina B mentions as it is the provincialism of most Americans, and seeing the VT students who were killed as innocent victims.

nina said...

Fireman dies in fire. Child dies ingesting popsicle bought at local grocery store. Are you asking why the latter is more likely to make headlines? It is unusual and it could happen to you and me. A soldier dying in Iraq is not unusual and it could not happen to you or me.

Separately, it should be noted that each death unhinges the lives of countless others, to say nothing of snuffing out existence for a real human being. That does not change, whether you die in Darfur, in Iraq or at VT.

Kieran said...

despite the rate ... being ... remarkable for their relative consistency over time.

I think you mean "because the rate is consistent over time. Absent other factors, things that are consistent over time are not news. Forty thousand people a year die in road accidents in the United States -- about 750 per week -- but you don't see it on the front page.

Anonymous said...

sure you can look at which news gets covered and why. this gets done all the time in communications & sometimes even in sociology. try hilgartner & bosk's 1988 article in ajs on public arena models.

kristina b said...

Thanks Anon. I will take a look at that when things calm down a bit. My newness to the field is showing :)

jeremy said...

Kieran: Yes, that's a good point. I think the thing I would like is just to see the graph of exactly how the decline in coverage of individual deaths has gone.