Why Is All COVID News Bad?

Three professors, two from Dartmouth and one from Brown, have produced a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled, “Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?” It focuses on the U.S. press, and its findings are disturbing:

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. 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. 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.”

A prediction that turned out to be wrong. But the pessimism of U.S. news outlets regarding the Wuhan virus has been consistent:

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.

That last is an interesting point. It would be reasonable to assume that negative COVID coverage is part of the liberal media’s effort to drive President Trump from office, and to some degree I have no doubt that this is true. But “conservative” news outlets have shown more or less the same pessimistic bias, and that seems to be what American news consumers want:

A natural question is whether media negativity varies greatly by the specific news source and whether that variation is related to the political beliefs of the readership. Our results are perhaps surprising. COVID-19 stories from all the major U.S. outlets have high levels of negativity and the variation that does exist is not correlated with readers’ political leanings.
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The estimated probability that a COVID-19 article is negative varies from 70 percent to 100 percent among major U.S. outlets. These probabilities are not correlated with the likelihood that conservative consumers of news trust the source. COVID-19 stories from Fox News are about as negative as those from CNN.The estimated probability that a COVID-19 article is negative varies from 70 percent to 100 percent among major U.S. outlets. These probabilities are not correlated with the likelihood that conservative consumers of news trust the source. COVID-19 stories from Fox News are about as negative as those from CNN.

The authors suggest that this negativity is driven by demand from consumers of the news–i.e, us.

They also address specific topics of news coverage, for example:

Overall, we find that COVID-19 stories from U.S. major media outlets are much more negative than similar stories from other U.S. outlets and from non-U.S. sources. The negativity does not respond to changes in new cases. Potentially positive developments such as vaccine stories receive less attention from U.S. outlets than do negative stories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine.

One of the U.S. media’s prime goals has been to discourage anyone from prescribing or taking hydroxychloroquine. In that, the press’s crusade has been successful, for better or worse.

[T]he terms “Trump and hydroxychloroquine” receive more coverage than do all stories about companies and researchers developing vaccines.

Why are “major” U.S. news sources so massively more negative than their international counterparts? I think the widespread hostility toward President Trump is the obvious answer. The fact that Fox isn’t much different from its left-wing competitors probably tells us more about Fox than about the American press in general.

But that isn’t the whole story. This NBER article suggests that the pessimism of major news outlets is a response to reader demand:

Consistent with the existing literature (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2010 and Gentzkow, Glaeser and Goldin 2006), our results suggest that U.S. major outlets publish unusually negative COVID-19 stories in response to reader demand and interest.
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Overall, we are unable to explain the variation in negativity with political affiliation of an outlet’s
audience, or U.S case count changes, but we do find that U.S. readers demand negative stories (as evidenced by article popularity).

So it may be that most Americans are behaving like sheep primarily because they are, in fact, sheep.

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