Whose Deaths Matter?

Mortality, Advocacy, and Attention to Disease in the Mass Media

This research analyzes a unique data set the authors collected concerning print and broadcast media attention in order to answer two questions: How is social burden of disease related to media attention? And, how do organized interest groups affect this attention? The diseases included in the study, all major causes of mortality in the U.S., were heart disease, lung disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer's. Data was collected about each disease for each year from 1980–1998. Broadcast media attention data was collected from ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts, as recorded by the Vanderbilt Television News Abstracts and Indices; print data were gathered through LexisNexis abstracts from the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Key Findings:

  • Both print and broadcast media are less attentive to diseases that burden blacks more than whites.
  • HIV/AIDS is an outlier for most trends revealed in this study and results of analysis change significantly depending on whether HIV is excluded or included.
  • Relative mortality rates do not necessarily predict how much attention a disease gets (e.g., pneumonia, among the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., receives little media coverage) although changes in mortality do affect media coverage, as does aggregate burden (if HIV is excluded.)
  • Female health issues, such as hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer, contribute to an association between female-specific diseases and more media attention, if HIV/AIDS is excluded.

The authors conclude that who dies, as well as how many die, are critical factors in determining what diseases receive media attention. This fact is likely contributing to health care inequities, as diseases that disproportionately burden blacks receive less media attention and are thus perceived as less serious. In part, this may be because news outlets are reflective of their sources and, therefore, interest groups may not emphasize diseases and concerns of underrepresented groups. Although HIV/AIDS is often used as an example of how to understand the attention allocation process, the authors' analysis shows that HIV actually distorts the mechanisms affecting the attention process. HIV/AIDS is unique among the top seven causes of mortality in the U.S. because it is the only infectious disease, the only one affecting primarily young people, and the only recently emerged disease in this group.