Analysis of aviation incidents shows how ‘news develops a life of its own’

Media coverage of airplane crashes has diverged sharply from trends in aviation safety over time, according to new research published in Journalism Studies. The findings provide some new insights into how the media’s distortion of reality can influence public behavior.

“Since news is by definition about the extraordinary and exceptional, media are commonly found to portray infrequent and isolated incidents rather than simply mirror reality,” the researchers said.

For their study, the researchers examined a database of 3,463,885 articles published in Dutch newspapers from January 1991 to December 2015. The database contained 9,443 articles related to airplane crashes.

This information was then compared to statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board’s database on aviation incidents.

The total number of aviation incidents went down over time, but the researchers observed the opposite trend in media attention. In other words, media coverage of crashes has steadily increased as aviation has become safer.

“The observed discrepancies between real-world indicators and how media portray it signals that, at times, news develops a life of its own and that the complex process of news selection and production is partly guided by other factors than reality,” the researchers said.

The study also found that the monthly number of airline passengers in the Netherlands was negatively associated with the volume of media attention for aviation incidents in that same month.

But the monthly number of passengers was unrelated to NTSB statistics on aviation incidents.

“It is striking that real-world statistics are seemingly irrelevant for public reactions; apparently, media reality, or media induced fear, is a stronger predictor for how the public understands the world and behaves accordingly as compared to reality itself,” the researchers remarked.

The study, “Mediatization and the Disproportionate Attention to Negative News“, was authored by Toni G. L. A. van der Meer, Anne C. Kroon, Piet Verhoeven, and Jeroen Jonkman.