Death and the Media: Asymmetries in Infectious Disease Reporting during the Health Transition

October 2015
Dora L. Costa, Matthew E. Kahn

In the late 19th Century, cities in Western Europe and the United States suffered from high levels of infectious disease. Over a 40 year period, there was a dramatic decline in infectious disease deaths in cities. As such objective progress in urban quality of life took place, how did the media report this trend? At that time newspapers were the major source of information educating urban households about the risks they faced. By constructing a unique panel data base, we find that news reports were positively associated with government announced typhoid mortality counts and the size of this effect actually grew after the local governments made large investments in public goods intended to reduce typhoid rates. News coverage was more responsive to unexpected increases in death rates than to unexpected decreases in death rates. Together, these facts suggest that consumers find bad news is more useful than good news.

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