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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers abundant advice for coping with COVID-19, including this recommendation for those troubled by stress: “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories.”
Just-published research reveals why that advice may be especially apt for people who consume major media content in the U.S. Its central finding: While the pandemic is definitely no picnic, coverage of it in America’s most-viewed and most-read media outlets is vastly more negative than coverage in U.S. media broadly defined, or in non-U.S. media.
You may wonder how coverage of a deadly global pandemic could be anything other than negative, but day-to-day developments over the past eight months have been good as well as bad. Case counts sometimes decline, therapies are discovered, vaccine research advances. Through it all, America’s most popular media outlets have proved extraordinarily adept at finding the clouds in a blue sky and making them the focus of the story.
The new research paper, “Why is all COVID-19 news bad news?” comes from Bruce Sacerdote and Ranjan Sehgal of Dartmouth College and Molly Cook of Brown University. They analyzed 20,000 COVID-related articles and TV transcripts from U.S. and English-language media in the U.K., India, Canada, and Australia. The researchers measured negativity using established methods, augmenting those results with their own system based on two- and three-word phrases combined with machine learning “to find the phrases that best predict whether the human reader will classify an article as strongly negative.” The articles and transcripts fell into three subtopics—vaccines, case counts, and reopenings.
“The most striking fact,” the researchers report, “is that 91 percent of the U.S. stories are classified as negative whereas 54 percent of the non-U.S. stories are classified as negative.” Within the persistently downbeat U.S. media, no patterns are apparent. Coverage is just as negative when new cases are declining as when they are increasing. A given media outlet’s political leanings are irrelevant; conservative Fox News is more negative than liberal MSNBC, but the liberal New York Times is more negative than the conservative New York Post.
Overall, the major U.S. media outlets—the 14 most viewed and read—are the most negative of all. As an example, the authors cite separate research on schools during the pandemic which found that overall infection rates among students were low (0.14%) and schools didn’t become super-spreaders, as many feared they would. Yet 90% of the school reopening reports in the U.S. major media were negative vs. only 56% in non-U.S. major media.
The big question is why the U.S. media, especially the major media, are so relentlessly gloomy. The authors believe they’ve found the answer, and it isn’t that the pandemic has been worse in the U.S. than in other countries; even in the early days and other periods when it was raging far more fiercely elsewhere, U.S. coverage was still more negative. The answer, they think, is in the New York Times’ daily list of its most popular articles. The researchers found that in the generally negative U.S. media, and then in the even more negative subset of major media, the most popular Times articles were still more negative, and by a wide margin. Extreme negativity is apparently what the readers love.
Or as the researchers say, “Our results suggest that U.S. major outlets publish unusually negative COVID-19 stories in response to reader demand and interest.” That tracks with the findings of a bevy of research about negativity bias in human psychology: People gravitate toward and tend to remember bad news.
The COVID-19 news researchers don’t attempt to explain the next “why,” however, which is why Americans in particular prefer stories that play down the good news and play up the bad. That will require a separate and much deeper study.