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Study shows bias for bad news about COVID-19, by Cynthia M. Allen
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Study shows bias for bad news about COVID-19, by Cynthia M. Allen

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Back in September, I wrote about how in the midst of the pandemic, there was a lot of good news that wasn’t getting much coverage.

At the time, the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests and hospitalization rate were both in decline. It was obvious to those who closely monitored the data, but news coverage didn’t reflect it. Instead, it largely focused on areas where caseloads were growing.

Promising new treatments, breakthroughs in vaccine development and studies that showed viral spread in schools really wasn’t happening — all were jettisoned for the most apocalyptic public health predictions, many of which to this day have not come to fruition.

That column caused apoplexy for some readers, who wrote to tell me that my sunniness was insensitive or ignorant. But I knew from reading science journals and just looking at data that everything wasn’t terrible.

That was a difficult argument to make in the face of an unrelenting tide of negativity. But I was sure my perception wasn’t completely off.

Turns out, there was a good reason why I felt that way.

In a recently published working paper, Dartmouth College economics professor Bruce Sacerdote and two fellow researchers, Ranjan Sehgal and Molly Cook, analyzed media coverage during the pandemic. They found that national U.S. publications and networks produced dramatically more negative coverage than international, regional and scientific news sources.

The researchers built a database of news coverage, categorizing by topic more than 9.4 million published stories, and used a social science technique that classifies language as positive, negative or neutral.

They determined that 87% of U.S. media coverage could be classified as negative, compared to 64% of news reported in scientific journals and just over half of coverage in international and regional/local media outlets.

Among the top 15 media outlets in the U.S. (by readership/viewership), COVID-19 stories were 25 percentage points more likely to be negative than more general U.S. sources or major media outlets outside the U.S.

Is it any wonder that the CDC actually suggested Americans reduce news consumption as a means of coping with increasing stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic?

Somewhat surprisingly, the negativity didn’t appear to be partisan. Media outlets with typically liberal and typically conservative audiences both appeared to look for the worst in news coverage.

But, as the study authors note, during a period when case numbers were dropping nationally, U.S. major media still had a penchant for reporting on President Donald Trump’s refusal to wear a mask rather than stories about vaccine research and declining caseloads.

One response to this analysis might be, so what? The pandemic has still been terrible and perhaps the skewed news coverage has prompted more responsible social behavior rather than complacency.

Perhaps. The researchers found that reporting in the U.S. was a lot more likely to promote behaviors such as wearing masks and social distancing. To what effect, though, we don’t know.

Sacerdote and his colleagues considered the impact of negativity in reporting on school reopenings too. While they found that counties that rely less on national media sources were more likely to have reopened schools, the researchers were also able to conclude that negative national stories caused fewer schools to reopen.

And it’s fair to wonder if the national media’s reluctance to report on early vaccine successes is responsible for some of the hesitancy people have to getting vaccinated now; the researchers offer nothing conclusive in this regard.

They do, however, suggest that media coverage is driven by audience appetite, (and people tend to want bad news for reasons that require more psychological analysis than I can do here).

The nagging problem about news coverage so obviously skewed is that it contributes to the sense that the media are telling you what they think you need to hear.

It’s notable that this seems to be an overwhelming problem for the national media but far less so for local and regional coverage. None of us, though, is harmed by a little introspection.

Email Cynthia M. Allen at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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