When people become statistics, they stop being individuals, and when five thousand deaths seems no worse than five hundred that’s very clearly the case. Journalists should be working in order to create more of an understanding of the individual lives lost during tragedies.

Back in May the total number of migrant deaths caused by drowning in the Mediterranean sea exceeded 1800 people, over five times higher than last year.

These statistics are a necessary evil used in order to understand the extent of an issue: how many people have died, how many have been killed, how many have successfully made their way into the UK. The issue of statistics, though, is that whilst it may give us an idea of scale, it prevents us from comprehending the reality of the individual lives affected.

Back in January the world offered their support to France, when two muslim extremists killed twelve people during an attack on satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo. News outlets responded with endless stories about the attacks and the people who were killed, all whilst almost entirely ignoring the fact that during that same week 2000 Nigerians were massacred by Boko Haram militants, victims who weren’t named or mourned.

Every day Western news publications feature stories on individual deaths and murders, sharing information that humanises not only victims, but often even murderers through interviews with friends and family, images of the people in question and enough background for the audience to think “right, this is/was actually a real person, with history and dreams and a family”. We think about it happening to somebody that we know and begin to understand how truly awful the event was.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case when stories featuring a large number of deaths outside of Western interest.

Back in January the United Nations reported an estimate of 220,000 deaths caused by the war in Syria, statistics which have vastly grown since so many people have been trying to cross over to Greece. That number alone is almost 100x higher than the deaths from the September 11th attacks that shook the world so badly that it took years to recover. The world watched in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed, and for weeks and months following the event stories were published by the victims’ families, sharing their last moments with their loved ones, photographs and phone recordings. Since the attacks a Memorial site has been constructed which has the names of all 2983 victims inscribed by the footprints of the existing buildings.

So far, there is nothing remotely similar for Syrian victims.

It’s quite clear that news sites realise there is more of an interest in non-stories than hard-hitting news about events going on outside of the West, but why is this the case? Why is it so rare to see these statistics backed up with anecdotes and tales of the victims like it always is with news stories about western lives?

Immigration is a hot topic in the news right now after recent storms made by migrants on the channel tunnel. This issue is far from new, though, with the Sangatte refugee camp, better known as “the Jungle” opening up in Calais in 1999. French authorities estimate that there are 3000 people currently living in the camps, but the reality is likely to be far higher.


Back in July an Instagram account apparently belonging to a migrant documenting his journey from Northern Africa into Spain became viral and sparked up fierce commentary about immigration through a mixture of encouraging and xenophobic responses. The account turned out to be a publicity stunt by Spanish production company Manson for the GETXOPHOTO exhibition which aimed to reflect “the way we process and share images of displacement and migration, in established media and on social networks.”

Looking beyond the commercialisation of a huge global crisis, what was most interesting for me was the humanisation of a (made up) migrant. The profile showed him with his family, running, rowing and sharing his journey and the comment section shows how invested the audience became in finding out about how the story ended. It seems apparent that when given individual’s stories we’re far more likely to understand the impact of a regime than through death tolls.

It’s unrealistic to expect journalists to humanise every person that builds up a statistic, but by humanising just one through honest, accurate stories more people will begin to understand the impact these events are having on people, and how the loss of thousands of lives really is a thousand times worse than the loss of just one.

What are your thoughts on the use of statistics in news?

Image Credit: Dead Boko Haram Soldier by VOA