In a new study, researchers from Dartmouth and Brown took a close look at the phenomenon of coronavirus and the media, producing a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research bearing a very simple question: “Why is All Covid-19 News Bad News?” This question is so simple that, at first glance, you might be tempted to dismiss it. Gee, how else would one report on a global pandemic? “Bad” may be in the eye of the beholder, but surely there’s not much good news hidden inside the Wuhan Flu.
But these researchers didn’t let the question go with a superficial shrug.
“On February 18, the Oxford Mail published a story that Professor Sarah Gilbert and her colleagues at Oxford’s Jenner Institute were working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus and that rapid vaccine development could be possible given the scientists’ existing work and experience with a possible MERS vaccine,” they wrote.
“In contrast with Oxford Mail’s reporting, the U.S. major media outlets of Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post did not begin coverage of Professor Gilbert’s COVID-19 related work until late April,” they continued. “The U.S. based stories emphasized caveats from health officials and experts downplaying the optimistic timeline and past success of the Oxford researchers. The earliest available (major outlet) U.S. story is from CNN on April 23rd and begins with a quote from England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty saying that the probability of having a vaccine or treatment ‘anytime in the next calendar year’ is ‘incredibly small.’”
This example works nicely to show that even when there are glimmers of “good news” from the world of the pandemic, the news media goes out of its way to downplay it. Here, in terms of their vaccine coverage, they not only took a pessimistic approach, they actually wound up being wrong. Experts at Pfizer now believe that they can roll out the first shots in December.
“Ninety one percent of stories by U.S. major media outlets are negative in tone versus fifty four percent for non-U.S. major sources and sixty five percent for scientific journals. The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive scientific developments including school re-openings and vaccine trials. Media negativity is unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases or the political leanings of the audience,” the authors noted.
A lot of this can be explained by the ol’ “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim. In other words, people have a thirst for negative news, that’s what sells, and so that’s what the media keeps churning out. The other part of it, of course, can be explained by the media’s hatred of Trump – they wanted to paint him as a failure of a president, and the pandemic helped them do it.
The lesson? Don’t believe everything you read or watch. Even when the news isn’t “fake,” it’s colored for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the truth…or what’s actually best for the public.