Every year, 33,000 people die in the US from motor vehicle accidents.
Every year, 15,000 people die in the US from homicides.
Every year, 300,000 people die in the US due to medical errors.
Anna dies due to a motor vehicle accident involving a drunk driver. The world moves on.
Alice dies due to the actions of a lunatic while running the Boston Marathon. The entire world mourns her death & embarks on a manhunt to avenge it.
Trevor dies while walking back home, in a botched robbery. He gets a small note in the crime section of his local newspaper the next day.
Trayvon dies while walking back home, in a struggle with an armed man. The entire world is glued to their television sets as the trial unfolds.
Paul goes to the hospital for a routine operation, and dies from a preventable medical error. His family mourns his loss privately.
Peter goes to school at Columbine and dies at the hands of a mentally unstable shooter. The President of the United States discusses potential legislative changes in response.
Every year, a saddening number of people die all over the world from tragic & preventable causes. Car accidents, crime, medical errors, lack of access to Healthcare, poverty, malnutrition, drugs, suicide, the list goes on. We mourn their loss when it happens to someone we know. Some of us go a step further & discuss legislative or societal efforts we can undertake to mitigate these tragic losses. But for the most part, we accept these mortalities as the inevitability of life, and move on with our own.
And yet, when it comes to sensational deaths, the script is completely flipped. Deaths caused by terrorism, school shootings, police malpractice, and plane crashes, are given wall-to-wall coverage in the media and our minds. In spite of the relatively tiny number of deaths involved, or perhaps because of it, they receive a massively disproportionate amount of attention, coverage & discussion.
This is an insult to our basic sense of fairness. All preventable deaths are equally tragic, and to passionately mourn one while sweeping the other under the rug, devalues the worthiness of life itself.
But beyond that, this obsession over certain forms of deaths, distorts our entire perception of the problems plaguing our world, and how best to address them. The time and energy that we spend obsessing over the few plane crashes that happen every year, can have an exponentially greater impact if it were directed towards vehicular accidents instead. The trillions of dollars that we’ve spent in our “War on Terror” could have made the world a much greater place, if it were directed towards a “War on Crime” or “War on Malnutrition” instead. We’re obsessing over the warts on our forehead while collectively ignoring the tumor in our lungs.
In an ideal world, we would all get together every Sunday, mourn the loss of every life individually, and discuss what should be done as an appropriate response. Given the 400,000+ deaths that occur every year from tragic causes, this is hopelessly impractical. Mourning is best left as a personal & private matter, for the people who actually knew the individuals involved.
The purpose of our media coverage shouldn’t be to shock, entertain & captivate with the most sensational deaths that have occurred. The goal of any serious journalistic organization should be to focus on the most pressing & widespread issues that affect our lives most directly. Every event and issue should be reported by the media in proportion to the number of people directly affected by it. As a rule of thumb, a national cable channel has no business reporting on an issue that has impacted less people than local crime.
All lives matter, regardless of race, gender, or cause of death. All deaths from preventable causes are equally tragic, and it’s time this fact reflected itself in our national discourse.
Disclaimer: In the months after this was published, the phrase “All Lives Matter” has been co-opted into a politically charged critique of BLM. To be clear, this post is not intended to criticize BLM, any more so than it criticizes our reaction to terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and plane crashes.
The data behind death frequency vs media coverage
The most over-represented and under-represented causes of death
The Atlantic tackling this same issue
The Political Side of selective mourning