I’ve recently read Andrew Marr’s excellent book about journalism, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, in which he talks about the media’s tendency to exaggerate a story, taking health scare stories as an example. There’s an excellent example around at the moment, that of Avian Flu H5N1. Now, I’m not suggesting complacency at all, but I think we need to get a better perspective on this story. The health officials are happy that the virus does not currently pass from person to person. In fact, it may never pass from person to person. So far, there have been only 156 human cases worldwide resulting in 77 deaths. Now, if we take the population of the planet to be 6 billion, that means that 0.0000026% of the population has contracted the disease and 0.0000013% have died from it. That’s one person in 77 million who has died. For comparison, in a much shorter timeframe, SARS infected 8096 people and of those 774 died (WHO figures) – roughly one person in every eight million.

For further comparison, the World Health Organisation has figures that show that 1.2 million people were killed in road accidents worldwide in 2002 alone (the most recent figure I could find). That’s 0.02% of the population or one person in 5000. Of course, many more were injured.

The number of people dying from preventable diseases, malnutrition, lack of clean water and AIDS/HIV is even higher than these figures, yet avian flu is the story that dominates the headlines. Because these other problems are not perceived by the media as immediate, exciting or dramatic, they rarely make the news headlines. Dramatic stories, no matter how over-blown, are the stories that take the lead and make the front page – because the media needs sensationalism in order to sell newspapers/get viewers/get listeners. I suppose you could argue that we, as consumers of news, are responsible for this. Discuss.


EDIT: I’ve said all this before, here, here and here.

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