Diseases capture public attention in varied ways and to varying degrees. In this essay, we use a unique data set that we have collected about print and broadcast media attention to seven diseases across nineteen years in order to address two questions. First, how (if at all) is mortality related to attention? Second, how (if at all) is advocacy, in the form of organized interest group activity, related to media attention? Our analysis of the cross-disease and cross-temporal variation in media attention suggests that who suffers from a disease as well as how many suffer are critical factors in explaining why some diseases get more attention than others. In particular, our data reveal that both the print and the broadcast media tend to be much less attentive to diseases that disproportionately burden blacks relative to whites. We also find a positive link between the size of organizational communities that take an interest in disease and media attention, though this finding depends on the characteristics of those communities. Finally, this study also reveals the limitations of relying on single-disease case studies—and particularly HIV/AIDS—to understand how and why disease captures public attention. Many previous inferences about media attention that have been drawn from the case of AIDS are not reflective of the attention allocated to other diseases.

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