In the late 19th century, cities in Western Europe and the USA suffered from high levels of infectious disease. Over a 40‐year period, there was a dramatic decline in infectious disease deaths in cities. As such objective progress in urban quality of life took place, how did the media report this trend? At that time, newspapers were the major source of information educating urban households about the risks that they faced. By constructing a unique panel database, we find that news reports were positively associated with government‐announced typhoid mortality counts, and the size of this effect actually grew after local governments made large investments in public water works to reduce typhoid rates. News coverage was more responsive to unexpected increases in death rates than to unexpected decreases in death rates.