Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Natural disasters and news media bias

In ECON110, we discuss the economics of news media bias. In discussing bias, I explicitly discuss sensationalism (bias of the exceptional over the ordinary), recency bias (bias of the new over the status quo), and exaggerated influence of minority views (bias by “fair” representation of both sides of the argument). We then go on to discuss how the 'normal' operation of the media market introduces bias into the way news stories are reported. However, we don't really go into much detail on the consequences of new media bias.

A recent 2007 paper by Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg (both University of Stockholm), published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (ungated version here), provides an excellent example of the consequences of media coverage. In the paper, Eisensee and Strömberg look at how media coverage of natural disasters outside the U.S. affects the likelihood of disaster relief being given, using a dataset of 5,212 disasters over the period from 1968 to 2002. Specifically, they look at how news coverage of natural disasters is affected by coverage of other news stories (e.g. Olympics coverage), and how that affects whether or not the U.S. declares a natural disaster and provides aid. The news data is based on television evening news stories (ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN).

They found that:
...2.4 extra minutes spent on the first three news segments (two standard deviations) decrease the probability that a disaster is covered in the news by four percentage points and the probability that the disaster receives relief by three percentage points. Recall that around 10 percent of all disasters are covered in the news and that 20 percent receive relief, and so the effects are sizeable... The estimated coefficients imply that a disaster occurring during the Olympics is 5 percent less likely to be in the news and 6 percent less likely to receive relief, on average.
The effects are especially large for disasters that are "marginally newsworthy" (those that would appear in the news if and only if there was little else happening that was newsworthy). More severe disasters (measured by the number of people killed or 'affected') are both more likely to receive news coverage and more likely to receive relief. However, the effects differ by the type and location of the disaster:
...we have computed the casualties ratio that would make media coverage equally likely, all else equal (controlling for the same factors as in the fixed effects regression). For example, for every person that dies in a volcano disaster, 38,920 people must die of food shortage to receive the same expected media coverage. The conclusion is that media induces extra relief to volcano and earthquake victims, at the expense of victims of epidemics, droughts, cold waves and food shortages...
The estimates suggest that it requires 45 times as many killed in an African disaster to achieve the same probability of media coverage as for a disaster in Europe. We conclude that media coverage induces extra U. S. relief to victims in Europe and on the American continent, at the expense of victims elsewhere.
In the Pacific, it requires 91 times as many killed to achieve the same probability of media coverage as for a disaster in Europe. In ECON110, we conclude that news media bias reflects the underlying bias in the news-consuming public (that prefers to consume news that is consistent with their own preferences and biases). I guess the U.S. news-consuming public cares less about people who die in famines or from natural disasters in the Pacific?

[HT: Marginal Revolution in July this year, but also see the excellent write-up in Our World in Data]

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