Sunday, May 06, 2007

How Death Is Reported

These days you have to search to find the news about the deaths in Iraq. They don't make the top-ten list of news unless a very impressive number has been killed. Today's major deaths have the Kenyan airplane accident as the most important one.

What determines when deaths make news? And why are deaths so important as news, even in cases where there is nothing that can be done about the deaths and where there is no obvious way to prevent similar future deaths? And why are all airplane crashes reported but not the car accidents which actually kill a lot more people every year?

The Iraq deaths are "old hat". We are used to hearing about them now, and that is partly why they no longer make the front page. It may also be that the government discourages these types of news, although I have no idea if that happens. But getting used to deaths does seem to make a big difference to what is reported as "new" news. Hence, we are not being told how many people car accidents kill or how many people die each year of the common influenza, because we are used to those deaths. They don't look frightening any longer. But a new killer virus! Now, that is news, even if it might never come about or even if it might not kill any more people than the current influenza strains.

The reasons for reporting airplane crashes are somewhat different. I would have thought that people are by now used to the idea that planes can crash. But those crashes probably remain newsworthy because so many of us have an almost primitive fear of flying and a deeply held belief that we are not supposed to find ourselves in a little tin can up in the air. And each crash kills multiple people in a short amount of time.

Some deaths are reported because of the horror about a particular way of dying rather than about the deaths themselves. Pedophiles killing children is a prime example of this, even if car accidents actually kill many more children each year. The problem with reporting for reasons such as novelty or primal fears or horror is that news are also seen as giving relevant information at the same time. Hence many people decide that pedophiles are riskier than cars or that flying is less safe than driving. Or that the deaths in Iraq are not that many.