"For example, dangers that primarily affect children evoke more concern than actions that pose an equal risk to adults. Risks that are man-made, like radiation from a nuclear plant, generally scare us more than natural things that are far more likely to harm us, like radiation from the sun. And something extremely rare that kills in a particularly dreadful way, like a shark attack, evokes more fear than something far more common that kills in a less gruesome manner, like a heart attack.
These subconscious patterns of risk perception also seem to affect the judgments of the people who bring us the news. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day last year, major American newspapers and wire services ran 2,240 articles on West Nile virus, which kills fewer than 300 Americans a year, while there were 257 articles on food poisoning, which will kill more than 5,000 of us (beware that potato salad!). "
There's a wonderful graphic, too, showing the number of injuries and newspaper articles about various threats. It turns out that lawnmower accidents, and falling out of windows, are very common and very under-reported. In contrast, West Nile virus and shark attacks are exceeding rare, but get all the press.
I tried to come up with some kind of morbid formula for this back in February, after the RI nightclub fire... The arbiter of publicity is probably Lexis-Nexis citations, number of newspaper articles, etc. I figured one of the biggest factors would be identification with the victims -- "that could have been me". It certainly was the case for 9/11 and the nightclub fires, and explains why an earthquake in Kyrgystan got scant coverage.
But it's not that simple. I think publicity is propelled by a combination of "that could have been me" and "I'd be helpless to stop it" -- which explains why shark attacks get coverage, and window falls don't. People aren't going to stop going to beaches or nightclubs, but they're going to do these things with the notion in the back of their mind that they could suddenly, powerlessly, suffer a horrifying death.
It's what they want to read about, at least.