In The Politics of Autism, I write: "If the science were not confusing enough, its coverage in the mass media has added another layer of murk."
April is Autism Awareness Month, when the words "Somebody get me an autism story" can be heard in newsrooms across the country. Some reporters will answer the call with accurate, nuanced, informative pieces that add value to the public's store of knowledge. Others will just phone in their reports, literally and figuratively. And a few will embarrass themselves.
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.
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, 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.