Is there any good news in the fight against COVID-19?
When comparing COVID-19 media coverage across countries, the U.S. stands out. Among U.S. major media coverage, a staggering 87 percent of COVID-related articles are negative in tone, versus 50 percent for major media outlets in other English-speaking countries, according to our recent research.
The negativity of the U.S. major media is also a serious outlier when compared to local and regional U.S. sources, or to scientific and medical journals. Only 53 percent of stories from U.S. sources outside the major media are negative in tone and 64 percent of the COVID-19 related articles in scientific and medical journals are negative.
This pattern is pronounced even in coronavirus topics where there is good news to report. In February 2020, the Oxford Daily Mail ran a story that Professor Sarah Gilbert and her Oxford colleagues were working on a COVID vaccine and that the team was optimistic that vaccine would be ready by the fall. American major media outlets didn’t cover this vaccine progress until late April and the delayed coverage began with caveats from health officials and more pessimistic timelines. More recently, two large studies of front-line U.K. health care workers at risk of exposure found that COVID-19 reinfections (meaning in those with prior COVID infection) are uncommon, highlighting the protective effect of natural immunity even in the face of the U.K. coronavirus variant outbreak. These studies received little coverage in the major U.S. media.
When researchers then demonstrated that COVID-19 vaccines produce a high level of antibodies in humans, U.S. major outlets were quick to emphasize that antibodies do not equate to protection from the virus. When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved by the FDA in December, the U.S. major media paired the good news with nearly equal coverage of COVID-19 variants noting that the variants are particularly contagious and might escape the protection offered by vaccines. Major outlets have emphasized the hypothesis that vaccinated people can still transmit the disease even though experience with previous virus vaccines suggests otherwise.
The major media has insisted until quite recently that the U.S. distribution of vaccines has been inefficient, poorly managed and slow. The Wall Street Journal ran a long piece on Feb. 18 titled “Behind America’s Botched Vaccine Rollout: Fragmented Communication, Misallocated Supply.” As of mid-April, 119 million Americans have received at least one dose and shots are being administered at the rate of 3.6 million per day — hardly a botched rollout especially when we consider that even a single shot is highly effective at preventing severe cases of COVID-19.
Major media coverage of school re-openings has been similarly and surprisingly negative. Most scientists and social scientists have concluded that schools are not super spreaders. When community infections per capita are below 75 percent, opening schools does not significantly raise community levels of infection or hospitalizations. Despite these results, the U.S. major media has emphasized the fears, problems and bad outcomes connected with school re-openings. If one searches the New York Times for stories on re-openings, among the top five hits are “When COVID subsided, Israel reopened its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well” and “A School Reopens and the Coronavirus Creeps In.”
Why is U.S. major media coverage so negative and so distinct from the coverage of U.S. regional sources and international sources? Likely we media consumers have only ourselves to blame. Negativity sells; negative stories are consistently among the most popular as measured by most viewed and most shared.
Among COVID-19 articles, the most viewed articles in the New York Times are 1.65 standard deviations more negative than the average article in our sample and .95 more standard deviations than the typical New York Times article. We find similar results for the CNN, Yahoo or the BBC articles most often shared on Facebook. Nearly 6 percent of the words in these most shared articles are negative versus only 2 percent for a typical article in the pre-pandemic era or 3 percent of words for a typical article about COVID-19 from the U.S. regional and local media. The U.S. major media is skilled at figuring out what types of stories will drive reader engagement and clicks and providing that content, for better and worse.
It is tempting to think that the negativity from the U.S. major media is partisan, or a response to former President Trump, or an attempt to prevent Americans from engaging in risky COVID-19 behavior. While there may some truth in each of these explanations, none of them is the whole story. Negativity has only dropped a bit since Biden’s election victory and Fox and CNN are equally negative, though the themes stressed vary across sources.
It’s more difficult to measure the consequences of the negativity bombarding consumers of American media. Levels of depression are up threefold since the start of the pandemic. Staying indoors watching negative spin on cable TV and the internet is unlikely to improve Americans’ well-being.
Modelling predicted significant collateral damage resulting from delays in general health care. Colorectal cancer detection has dropped sharply, while more patients present emergently and thus at later stages, leading to significantly poorer prognoses. COVID-related safety protocols are widely in place at U.S. health facilities, potentially making a medical visit safer that grocery shopping.
Despite many at-risk U.S. patients now having been vaccinated, the vast backlog of cancer screenings has not been cleared, and in fact such visits remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels. We are also worried for parents and for children who have missed more than a year of in-person schooling due to fears surrounding spread of the virus in schools.
Our hope is that the vaccine miracle which was initially somewhat discounted by the major media will soon cause a sharp drop in caseloads, students will be back in school and adults won’t be watching hours of negative COVID-19 stories per day. American readers could benefit from sampling broadly from scientific, local, regional and international sources in order to get a balanced picture of both good and bad events in the world.
Bruce Sacerdote, Ph.D., is the Richard S. Braddock 1963 professor in economics at Dartmouth College and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Anthony Borcich, M.D., is a gastroenterologist, assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and adjunct instructor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
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