Counting the dead in real time

In a world with over 6 billion people, there is bound to be a few thousand in the throes of some disaster (natural or otherwise) at any given time. Since news agencies thrive on breaking disaster news, it’s not uncommon to hear and see numbers of dead flying around like a stock ticker.

This week, three horrible events were covered extensively in the Canadian and American news: the ‘stampede’ in a Chicago nightclub, the subway fire in South Korea, and the plane crash in Iran. As each of these events unfolded, the number of dead reported on various websites, including CBC, MSNBC, CNN, and BBC, was contradictory. In some cases, the variations were quite significant.

For example, at around 8:30 PM Atlantic time, I took a screenshot of a Google News search for Iran air crash. See a screenshot of the results with the casualty estimates highlighted.

During the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, the immediate speculation varies from a staggering 50,000 to (an also staggering) 5,000 (now somewhere between 3,000-4,000).

However, these were not reported as concrete numbers – nobody knew what was going on and we all knew it. Many of the numbers being reported in the screenshot above are not qualified as unconfirmed.

Is this kind of inaccuracy understandable? Is news being delivered before it is ‘ready’ (able to be confirmed), or is it better for news agencies to share what they know, when they know it?


11 thoughts on “Counting the dead in real time

  1. According to the Washington Post, there are 24.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV/AIDS, 5,500 of whom die every day.

    Every life on earth is sacred, but with numbers of people like this involved in the AIDS crisis, do any of the other numbers really matter at all?

    This is where I check out on the “US goes to war with Iraq to save lives” argument; if the US Government really cared about saving lives, Bush would have created an “Office of AIDS” instead of an “Office of Homeland Security”.

    The problem is, if we allow ourselves to become even slightly conscious of the scope of the AIDS situation in Africa, we would go insane. Or at least stop buying so many SUVs.

  2. I suppose if one siteadmin (ready to update the site) shouts across the busy and noisy room to one of the sources:
    “How many passengers were on that plane?!”

    And the other shouts back:


    …then discrepancies may be created. Though in that small scenario, the flaw should be quickly detected, wouldn’t it?

    And with about 6,000,000,000 bodies on the planet, things are bound to happen by the second, and in large numbers. Mass-occurences. Not very romantic, but very real.

  3. The sifting of facts to the point of accuracy should be expected to take time. I was truck by the figure 3066 which is the number of murders that El Qida (sp?) cat in Hamburg was convicted of assisting in yesterday. The idea, however, that a situation of a large numbers of deaths should justify turning off interest in the issue is wacked. If that is true then Goebbels wins – the Nazi propagada minister held that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. I would think that over the next 20 years we are going to be affected as much by the collapse of much of southern africa society due to AIDS as any other issue. Better to deal with it.

  4. In today’s story of Rhode Island nightclub fire, there were equally diverse reports:

    • 54 killed, 150 injured in Rhode Island nightclub fire
    • 26 die in rock concert fire
    • 39 Dead in US Nightclub Fire
    • 25 dead in nightclub fire
    • Several Dead in US Nightclub Fire
    • 10 dead in Rhode Island nightclub fire
    • Up to 20 feared dead in nightclub fire
    • At Least 10 Dead in Huge RI Club Fire
    • At least one dead, dozens injured in US nightclub fire
  5. From the video I saw of the Rhode Island fire, the reason for the increasing numbers was just finding the bodies and it being unimaginable that almost 100 got stuck in such a small building – all because of the lack of need to install water sprinklers where an establishment has not done a major renovation.

  6. The news LOVES unconfirmed stuff. We all know “allegedly” is their favorite word. It allows them to excite us without taking any credit for what they say.

  7. News doesn’t love unconfirmed stuff, people do. We can bitch and complain about shoddy journalism but people like watching crap. If veiwers actually watched and read good journalism this wouldn’t be a problem.

  8. I hate watching crap. It’s crap.

    My english teacher says western society is “dying of entertainment.” That’s about the truest statement I’ve ever heard.

  9. In 1983, I was lucky enough to talk a course or two from George Grant, the social philosopher, and he spoke of TV and commericialization and sexualization as a fatal diversions to society which allowed value-based principles to overwhelm the general principles of a democratic state. Sounds kind of banal when I put it in one sentence but he would link support for euthenasia to TV viewing that did not sound like a wacko.

  10. “Is news being delivered before it is ‘ready'”

    I note an increasing frequency (at least on BBC World, which is basically the only English-language television news I get where I live) of new being reported *before it happens* these days.

    The number of items in a given news cast that begin “The announcement will be made…” or “It is anticipated that….” or something along those lines seems to me to have been increasing in recent years, and I suppose it makes sense, with the push (that you note) to get something, anything, onto the screen as quickly as possible when news breaks.

Comments are closed.