Relative risk in the news media: a quantification of misrepresentation

Am J Public Health. 1997 May;87(5):842-5. doi: 10.2105/ajph.87.5.842.


Objectives: This study quantifies the representativeness with which the print news media depict mortality.

Methods: The proportion of mortality-related copy in samples of national print media was compared with the proportion of actual deaths attributable to the leading causes of US mortality over a 1-year period.

Results: For every tested cause of death, a significant disproportion was found between amount of text devoted to the cause and the actual number of attributable deaths. Underrepresented causes included tobacco use (23% of expected copy) and heart disease (33%); overrepresented causes included illicit use of drugs (1740%), motor vehicles (1280%), and toxic agents (1070%).

Conclusions: The news media significantly misrepresent the prevalence of leading causes of death and their risk factors. This misrepresentation may contribute to the public's distorted perceptions of health threats.

MeSH terms

  • Cause of Death
  • Humans
  • Mortality*
  • Publishing / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk
  • Risk Factors