Hierarchy of death

Hierarchy of death is a phrase used by journalists, social scientists, and academics to describe disproportionate amounts of media attention paid to various incidents of death around the world.[1] In other words, this phrase refers to the phenomenon where some deaths appear to be more "mournable" than others. [2]

Factors in determining the "mournability" of death

The phenomenon of the death hierarchy can be explained by a variety of factors. Characteristics of a death that determine the death's "mournability" include: media coverage, stereotypes about different groups of people, familiarity with the deceased, and various psychological factors, such as collapse of compassion, psychic numbing, and disaster fatigue. [2]

Collapse of compassion

Collapse of compassion describes the common phenomenon where the death of fewer people elicits more attention than the death of more people.[2] In other words, there is an inverse relationship between the number of people who die in a particular instance and the sensitivity towards that death event. This collapse of compassion is tied closely with the "identifiable victim effect" which refers to the fact that people are more inclined to help people if they are able to see their name and/or face than people who are unidentified. [3] For example, in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, people are more likely to put effort into getting justice for those killed by police brutality if they see the names and faces of the victims than they would be if they didn't. This relationship between the ability to see the deceased as human rather than statistics and the importance of the death can be seen in a variety of ways. For example, the #SayTheirNames campaign, a campaign which encourages people to recognize the individuals who have died from police brutality, utilizes this relationship to prompt people to obtain justice for those who have died at the hands of police.


Definitions of the hierarchy of death vary, but several themes remain consistent in terms of media coverage: domestic deaths outweigh foreign deaths, deaths in the developed world outweigh deaths in the developing world, deaths of whites outweigh deaths of darker skinned people, and deaths in ongoing conflicts garner relatively little media attention.[4][5][6][7]


British media commentator Roy Greenslade has been credited with coining the term while writing on the newsworthiness of those who died during The Troubles. Greenslade continues to critique the phenomenon, including media reactions to the Boston Marathon bombings.[8][9]

NPR discussed the disparity in media coverage between the 2015 Beirut bombings and the November 2015 Paris attacks, which happened within a day of each other.[10][11]

Scottish journalist Allan Massie has also written on the topic.[9][12]

Similar phenomena

The hierarchy of death has been compared to missing white woman syndrome.[13]


  1. ^ Keating, Joshua (2013-04-22). "Is it wrong to care more about 4 deaths in Boston than 80 in Syria?". Ideas.foreignpolicy.com. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  2. ^ a b c Zakiami. "Category: The Hierarchy of Death: Why Some Deaths "Matter" More Than Others". Death Dying III. Retrieved 26 September 2020.
  3. ^ Slovic, Paul (2010). "If I look at the mass I will never act: Psychic numbing and genocide". The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology Emotions and Risky Technologies: 37-59. doi:10.1007/978-90-481-8647-1_3.
  4. ^ Greenslade, Roy (2007-04-19). "A hierarchy of death". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  5. ^ Karpf, Anne (2001-11-28). "Anne Karpf: The hierarchy of death". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  6. ^ Goldberg, Jeffrey (July 23, 2014). "Obsessing About Gaza, Ignoring Syria (And Most Everything Else)". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 29, 2015.
  7. ^ R. L. W.; G. D. (August 12, 2014). "Comparing conflicts". The Economist. Retrieved May 29, 2015.
  8. ^ "Sian murder says a lot about media's values". London Evening Standard. March 30, 2011.
  9. ^ a b "The hierarchy of death: Boston's bombings shock us more than the silent drone war in Pakistan. But should they?". The Telegraph. April 24, 2013.
  10. ^ Ajaka, Nadine. "Paris, Beirut, and the Language Used to Describe Terrorism". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-02-21.
  11. ^ "Is There A Hierarchy Of The Importance Of Death In The News Business?". NPR.org. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
  12. ^ Massie, Allan (16 April 2013). "Allan Massie: Keep Boston bombings in perspective". The Scotsman. Retrieved May 29, 2015.
  13. ^ Jones, Owen (2013-04-21). "Owen Jones: Our shameful hierarchy - some deaths matter more than others - Comment - Voices". London: The Independent. Retrieved 2013-04-29.

Further reading

  • Levy, Yagil (2012). Israel's Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy (Warfare and Culture). New York City: NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-5334-5.

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