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Danger and the Press 

Two weeks ago the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press examined travel in Medieval Europe. We found travel in the 1500s to be uncomfortable, dangerous and expensive. Continuing our coverage of the issue of transportation, last week we examined the most modern form of travel, by plane, and found it to be remarkably safe. Air travel is getting even safer if one compares the current safety record of the airlines to their record since 1960.

Our continuing coverage of the issue of flight safety is spurred by our own experience in surveying online journalism. There seems to be a remarkable, and almost continuous, stream of high profile articles regarding plane crashes. (We’ll also admit that our interest is spurred in part by being the survivor of a small-plane crash.)

Finishing our series on travel, the press and perspective, we now examine press coverage of air plane accidents as measured against the true risk of these accidents.

The following information is from a speech given in Washington on August 19, 1996 by Arnold Bennett, a professor of Operations Research/Statistics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

The New York Times is considered America’s paper of record. Professor Bennett studied the Times for one year, from October 1, 1988 to September 30, 1989. Professor Bennett analyzed the number of stories on the front page which pertained to human fatality. During that year there was one front page story about a suicide, four stories about automobile accidents, seven stories about cancer, 35 stories about homicides, an equal number (35) were focused on AIDS and, finally, there were 51 front page stories during the year about commercial airline crashes.

Based on the evidence above, one would have to assume that someone living in America, or at least in New York, was far more likely to die from an airplane crash or AIDS than from cancer. Of course, this is ludicrous. Almost anyone, with the exception of clearly identifiable risk groups, in New York or otherwise, is much more likely to die from cancer than from an airplane crash or AIDS.

As documented in James Walsh’s book, “True Odds,” deaths from AIDS in the United States were about 28,000 in 1990 and 30,000 in 1991. By comparison, about 500,000 people in the United States die from cancer every year. And in all of 1995 there were only four commercial plane accidents, and only one, in South America, involved a major carrier. And those four accidents were a result of 11.4 million scheduled departures. (Read our essay on putting AIDS in proper historical perspective for more information.) And in some years, there are no deaths in the United States from commercial airline accidents.

Of course, one might argue that the very rarity of certain types of disaster, such as plane crashes, makes them more noteworthy. But let’s look at Professor Bennett’s analysis of articles-per-thousand U.S. deaths to determine just how skewed the media coverage really is:

  • For every 50,000 deaths from cancer there was one New York Times front page article about cancer.
  • For every 34,000 deaths from suicide there was one front page article about suicide.
  • For every 13,000 deaths from automobile accidents there was one article.
  • For every 5,900 homicides there was one article.
  • For every 4,400 deaths from AIDS there was one article.
  • The real whopper — for every seven deaths from airline accidents, there was one article.

Thus, if you died in a plane crash the event of your death was more than 7,000 times as likely to make the front page of The New York Times than if the cause of your death was cancer. And while a fatal automobile accident is no less gory or sudden than a plane crash, the latter results in 2,000 times more prominent media coverage, per fatality, than the former.

So if you are afraid of flying, take consolation: You are in little real danger, but, in the unlikely event that something happens, at least you’ll make the front page of The New York Times. Or to paraphrase an old saying, “Unlucky in the air, lucky in the news.”

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