C&B Notes

What Actually Kills Us vs. Coverage

Our World In Data presented a study that compared what people in the U.S. actually die from to Google search trends for causes of death and mentions of causes of deaths in the New York Times and The Guardian newspapers.  With the notable exception of heart diseases, Google searches were closer to the actual causes.  It is not surprising that, in aggregate, users are searching for information about things that impact themselves most often.  Media coverage is an entirely different story as terrorism, homicide, and suicide are significantly over-represented.

The first column represents each cause’s share of US deaths; the second the share of Google searches each receives; third, the relative article mentions in the New York Times; and finally article mentions in The Guardian.

The coverage in both newspapers here is strikingly similar. And the discrepancy between what we die actually from and what we get informed of in the media is what stands out:

    • around one-third of the considered causes of deaths resulted from heart disease, yet this cause of death receives only 2-3 percent of Google searches and media coverage;
    • just under one-third of the deaths came from cancer; we actually google cancer a lot (37 percent of searches) and it is a popular entry here on our site; but it receives only 13-14 percent of media coverage;
    • we searched for road incidents more frequently than their share of deaths, however, they receive much less attention in the news;
    • when it comes to deaths from strokes, Google searches and media coverage are surprisingly balanced;
    • the largest discrepancies concern violent forms of death: suicide, homicide and terrorism. All three receive much more relative attention in Google searches and media coverage than their relative share of deaths. When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US.

What’s interesting is that Americans search on Google is a much closer reflection of what kills us than what is presented in the media. One way to think about it is that media outlets may produce content that they think readers are most interested in, but this is not necessarily reflected in our preferences when we look for information ourselves.

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