Fear can be irrational. It’s more common to be afraid of flying than driving, yet getting behind the wheel is vastly more dangerous. Shark attacks similarly capture the imagination but are highly unlikely to befall the average person. 

But how much attention do Americans give the things that are actually most likely to kill them? To get at this question, researchers analyzed how frequently the top causes of death in the U.S. were searched for online and covered in the news, wondering if what people were searching for matched up with what was most likely to kill them. 

They found the number one killer, heart disease, accounted for 30 percent of U.S. deaths between 1999 and 2016 but represented less than 3 percent of online searches and coverage in the New York Times. At the other end of the spectrum, terrorism racked up 35 percent of the coverage of various causes of death in the New York Times, but its share of actual deaths was less than .01 percent. 

The disparity the New York Times put out is not new. In 1979, researchers reached a similar conclusion: "Although all diseases claim almost 1,000 times as many lives as do homicides, there were about three times as many articles about homicides than about all diseases. Furthermore, homicide articles tended to be more than twice as long as articles reporting deaths from diseases and accidents.”

What’s less clear is whether this disparity is a problem. Newspaper headlines don’t reflect what’s statistically most likely to kill us, but should they?

Published on Dec 05, 2019