Death-news rankings revealed

Wikimedia Commons / Alexander Novarro

Wikimedia Commons / Alexander Novarro

Major news outlets are responding to complaints of bias in the way certain stories about deaths are prioritized. The charges of bias come in the wake of Saturday’s accident involving Asiana Airlines flight 214, which crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing two passengers and injuring scores more.

Many news organizations such as CNN and the New York Times have given considerably more coverage to the Boeing 777 crash than to other stories involving deaths that occurred around the same time.

On Saturday, the same day as the Boeing 777 crash, a runaway train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 13 people and leaving 37 missing. The following day, a Havilland DHC3 Otter crashed on a runway in Soldotna, Alaska, resulting in the deaths of ten people. Perhaps most shocking of all is that last weekend in Chicago, a total of 74 people were shot, twelve of whom died from their injuries.

None of these other stories got much attention in the news, leading observers to wonder why. Was there a bias directing the importance of death news stories? Why are some deaths more newsworthy than others?

News agencies have gone into damage-control mode, and platoons of public relations consultants have been hired to convince people that the major news outlets deserve their trust.

To support their claims of non-bias, major news outlets have authorized the release of a previously confidential document that is used to determine which death stories get the most coverage, and which do not get mentioned at all. This system, called the Generally Accepted System for Ranking Death Stories (GASRDS), or “gas rods” to news media insiders, has been in use for decades. Until now, it has been kept hidden from public scrutiny.

Rosa Kelly, president of the public relations firm Saunders and McGuire, discussed GASRDS at a press conference on Tuesday.

“It’ll be no surprise that a story involving deaths always goes on the top of the page,” she said. “But there are three important exceptions. Death stories get trumped by a celebrity marriage or breakup. That goes without saying. The second exception is a declaration of war, or an event that might result in military action. The last exception is an imminent threat such as a plague, hurricane or sarin-spewing dragon that’s been brought back to life by the accidental drunken muttering of a string of magic words.”

As for how stories about deaths are ranked, Kelly offered a clear explanation.

“In general,” she said, “the more deaths connected to a particular news story, the higher the story goes in the rankings. However, there are many other factors to consider. In order to deal with the variety of of types of untimely demise  — illness, murder or an accident — the major news organizations employ a point system. The story with the most points goes on top.”

Kelly’s assistant distributed an 8-page document that showed how this system works. Stories can receive positive or negative points. After several minutes of allowing the attendees to inspect the document, Kelly asked them to return it.

It must be noted there that cameras and phones were prohibited at the press conference. All participants had to agree to a body search to verify they were not concealing photography equipment. However, attendees were allowed several minutes of meditation to try to commit to memory what they had read.

A story can earn positive points or negative points in many ways, Kelly said, which explains why terrible disasters in other parts of the world barely get a moment of coverage in the United States. The apparent newsworthiness of an earthquake in China, for example, in which 500 people die, can be offset by the fact that not many Americans know where Xinjiang is, or know how to pronounce it.

The ranking of deaths from a natural disaster will be further decreased because, quite often, blame cannot be assigned to the United States. “However,” Kelly noted, “this pattern is changing  as more people on earth are pointing to the USA as the sole cause of climate change.”

Below are some of the ways a story can gain or lose points:

+2 points if the victim was killed by a gun

+6 points if the death can be used to make a case, directly or ironically, for tighter gun control (the shooter was a family member, or crazy, or both, or the victim was a gun-rights advocate, etc.)

+45 points if the death(s) resulted from an airplane crash

+400 points if the death(s) can be used to cast the US military in a bad light

+1000 points if the victim was a celebrity

-1 point if the victim(s) lived outside the US

-5 points for every day that passes without a major development on the story

-20 points if the victim was killed by a gun owner while the victim was in the act of committing a violent crime

-100 points if the deaths can be used to portray the military in a positive light

“It’s a real relief knowing there is a fixed, almost scientific way of ranking death stories,” said Kyle Garner, a construction foreman and blogger from Tennessee who attended the press conference. “I used to think that there was some sort of conspiracy in the media, or that journalists choose their stories to suit an agenda. But now I can see that’s not the case. I’ll be able to rest easy at night now.”

Kelly implored those assembled at the press conference to pay close attention next time a series of deadly accidents occurs with days of each. “You’ll see GASRDS at work,” she said. “You’ll see that the system is mostly transparent, and mostly fair.”