Media Coverage vs Actual Incidence

The month of October is a tough on for me schedule-wise, so I’m probably going to be posting a lot of short takes on random things I see. This study popped up on my Twitter feed this week and seemed pretty relevant to many of the themes of this blog: “Mediatization and the Disproportionate Attention to Negative News“.

This study took a look at airplane crashes, and tracked the amount of media attention they got over the years. I’ll note right up front that they were tracking Dutch media attention, so we should be careful generalizing to the US or other countries. The authors of the study decided to track the actual rate of airplane crashes over about 25 years, along with the number of newspaper articles dedicated to covering those crashes as a percentage of all newspaper articles published.

The whole paper is interesting, but the key graph is this one:

Now the authors fully admit that the MH17 airplane crash in 2014 (plane brought down by a missile, mostly Dutch passengers,) does account for that big spike at the end, but it appears the trend still holds even if you leave that out.

It’s an interesting data set, because it puts some numbers behind the idea that things are not always covered in the media in proportion to their actual occurrence. I think we all sort of know this intuitively in general, but it seems hard to remember when it comes to specific issues.

Even more interesting is that the authors did some analysis on exactly what these articles covered, to see if they could get some hints as to why the coverage has increased. They took 3 “eras” of reporting, and categorized the framing of the articles about the plane crashes. Here were there results:

Now again, the MH17 incident (with all its international relations implications) is heavily skewing that last group, but it’s interesting to see the changes anyway. The authors note that the framing almost definitely trends from more neutral to more negative. This supports their initial thesis that there is some “mediatization” going on. They define mediatization as “a long-term process through which the importance of the media and their spillover effects on society has increased” and theorize that “Under the conditions of mediatization, certain facets have become more prominent in media coverage, such as a focus on negativity, conflicts, and human-interest exemplars”. This tendency is the fault of “the decreasing press–party parallelism and media’s growing commercial orientation has strengthened the motives and effort to gain the largest possible audience media can get”.

As a result of this, the authors show that within the month after a plane crash is reported by the media, fewer people board planes. They don’t say if this effect has lessened or increased over time, but regardless, the media coverage does appear to make a difference. Interestingly, the found that airline safety was not related (time-series wise) to press coverage. Airlines were not more or less safe the month after a major crash than they were the month before, suggesting that crashes really aren’t taking place due to routine human error any more.

Overall, this was a pretty interesting study, and I’d be interested to see it repeated with some new media such as blogs or Twitter. It’s harder to get hard numbers on those types of things, but as their effect is felt more and more it would be interesting to quantify how they feed in to this cycle.

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