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Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

David McCandless/Information is Beautiful
Who’s afraid of Ebola?
OUT OF CONTROL

Really scary stuff that the media makes worse, charted

By Annalisa Merelli

We’re kind of a small animal on a really big planet, so there’s much to be frightened of. Death by lightning, raccoon eyes at night, sinkholes—these are all perfectly terrifying things.

And there’s something to be said for the argument that the media makes it worse.

David McCandless, an author and designer who founded the data visualization site Information is Beautiful, decided to examine how media hype amplified humanity’s fears—from asteroids to swine flu.

Using primarily Google Trends data (and the now defunct News Timeline function), he collected headlines from news sources related to big threats such as SARS in China, asteroids, or the (nonexistent) link between vaccines and autism.

He then selected those with the most media mentions, and visualized them representing their intensity over time.

David McCandless/Information is Beautiful

The visualization shows a seasonality of fears, because media cycles tend to touch on the same subject at the same time of the year. Every April there is a peak in mentions related to the dangers of violent video games, which might be the result of stories on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

McCandless made the first version of Mountains of Molehills (included in his book Knowledge is Beautiful) in 2007, and has been updating it since. In 2010, when he presented it at a TED conference, the biggest molehill was related to the swine flu outbreak in the UK.

In 2014, something happened that made that fear disappear in comparison: Ebola.

Ebola was by far the scariest thing to happen to mankind since McCandless began charting, according to the media. The visualization below shows the very top of the peak in Ebola mentions relative to every other scary thing.

David McCandless/Information is Beautiful