Media & PR

16 deaths or 957 deaths: which is the bigger story?

Choosing which tragedies to cover, and how much attention to give them, is an inevitable part of journalism. There are simply too many around the world to cover them all, let alone to cover them all in detail, even if you have the freedom of a website without space limitations. There are still the limitations of staff time, space on the front page and so on.

To be a journalist is to choose. But not to choose in isolation, for there’s a feedback loop with the audience. The media report the stories it thinks the public will be most interested in and in turn the public becomes more interested in the stories it hears about. For those countries, people, sports or topics that don’t break into the cycle it becomes a fierce barrier.

Not interested in the latest [insert name of sport here] results? Well, if you’ve never heard of the players, the teams or the competitions, you’re not likely to be. And because you’re not interested, the media don’t cover it and so you stay not interested.¬†Just sometimes something is so dramatic it breaks that cycle of exclusion.

More often though it doesn’t, as shown by the starkly different volumes of media coverage given to foreign floods. Compare two: one with 16 deaths at the time a story was written and one with 957. Which is the bigger story? Add in that one is in the US and the other is in the¬†Philippines and you see that it’s the country, not the death toll, which is the dominating factor. It’s easier to get news from the US, an industrialised, wired country produces more content for news and more people are interested in the US than the Philippines.

That’s why 957 deaths got relatively so little coverage in late 2011 compared to the current tragedy in the US. That wasn’t just a journalists’ choice, it was the public’s choice, for compare the social media sharing statistics on the two stories taken from the Daily Telegraph website:

16 deaths

957 deaths

Death totals given at time of writing of the Telegraph stories. (Update: the Telegraph has since updated its reported total to over 1,000.)

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