Bill Gates has used his platform to direct the nation's attention to a serious issue: the way that health and death statistics are treated in the media.
Gates is a man of wealth and influence, and in recent years, a dedicated philanthropist as well. He often urges his 47.4 million Twitter followers to focus their attention on important issues, and this week, he encouraged them to be mindful media consumers as well. Gates pointed out that the statistically common causes of death in the U.S. do not match the ones most-covered by the news media.
"I’m always amazed by the disconnect between what we see in the news and the reality of the world around us," Gates tweeted. "As my late friend Hans Rosling would say, we must fight the fear instinct that distorts our perspective."
Gates included an infographic with four columns. The first listed the most common causes of death in the U.S. in 2016, and the second listed the causes of death most frequently Googled. The third and fourth showed how much those causes of death were covered by the New York Times and The Guardian respectively during that same year.
The differences were striking, with heart disease making up over 30 percent of deaths in 2016, but just 2 percent of Google searches, and a little over 2 percent of coverage from each outlet. The graph also noted that terrorism attributed to less than 0.01 percent of deaths, but made up over 7 percent of searches and over 33 percent of coverage from each outlet — even more from the New York Times. There were similar disparities for homicide, suicide and accidents like car crashes, although the bars evened out a bit for a few diseases and health problems.
Gates' tweet also linked to an article from a non-profit called Our World Data, which aims to better understand how the media shapes public consciousness. The article made the case that both the Google searches and the news coverage should more closely match the statistical causes of death. However, many online — especially professional journalists — disputed this idea.
"Respectfully disagree," one user wrote. "A death on a cancer hospital bed is not same as one due to bomb blast. In case of terror, death is caused by others. Those killed are innocent. Think of their age profile. State can save them. Hue & cry on murders & terror attacks keep Govt alert. Save lives."
Others echoed this sentiment, saying that the abundance of deaths from cancer and heart disease do not necessarily warrant news coverage unless they include some useful updates about new medical science, treatment options or other relevant information. However, others fired back that it is still worth noting how the media can make some issues seem bigger than they actually are.
The data Gates shared came from a project completed by students at the University of California San Diego, titled Death: Reality vs. Reported. The findings are available in their entirety online.