How many upbeat articles have you come across since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged? Not many, probably. While the pandemic hasn’t exactly been a cheerful time, consider what should have been reported as good news amid tragedy. For example, a novel virus plagued the earth, but researchers developed vaccines. After the number of cases had climbed, it fell. Schools were expected to be super-spreaders, and yet they weren’t. These are positive developments. But the media has a talent for reframing good news as bad news.
Researchers at Dartmouth College and Brown University analyzed the tone of COVID-19 articles, going back to January 2020. They found that 91% of the articles published by major US media outlets had a negative slant, regardless of COVID-19 trends: even during periods in which cases were declining overall, five times as many stories focused on localized case increases than on the overall decline. And the number of stories about Donald Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine was greater than the number of all stories combined about scientific breakthroughs related to vaccines. Here are some examples of the type of headline that still plagues the mainstream media in the US, despite considerable global progress in combating COVID:
Media outlets are simply responding to reader demand and interest. Readers are simply more drawn to negative news than positive news. The researchers found that—by an overwhelming margin—the most widely read COVID articles in the New York Times were the negative ones. And this phenomenon appears to be unrelated to the audience’s political leanings. For example, Fox News and CNN have run roughly the same number of negative stories about COVID. The UK’s Oxford Mail published Sarah Gilbert’s promising work on vaccines in mid-February 2020. But major US outlets (including Fox News, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post) did not report on this work until 23 April, when CNN ran an article on it—and even that article featured a quotation that downplayed researchers’ progress.
This fear-mongering as some might call it, isn’t unique to COVID news. The mainstream press has been disseminating much more bad news than good for a very long time, all around the world.
When it comes to choosing what news we will consume, our attitudes do not align with our behaviours. Even those who claim to avoid reading gloomy articles tend to be more likely to read negative news and to ascribe greater importance to negative information.
Studies have shown that this comes down to a basic feature of the human brain: we pay more attention to faces that display negative emotions, have a better memory for negative words, give more weight to negative information when we make decisions and are more dissatisfied by losses than we are satisfied by equivalent gains. Babies show this negativity bias at three months old. As Jonathan Haidt puts it, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.”
From an evolutionary viewpoint, it makes sense that our brains are wired this way. Once upon a time, the cost of ignoring signals of any potential danger could be deadly, while the cost of attending to false alarms was relatively small. Thus our brains’ overreactions to negative stimuli probably evolved to keep us safe.
Bad News Media
However, there is a modern downside to our negativity bias: the overrepresentation of negative information in the media can distort our understanding of the state of the world, as cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has explained. As he points out, the problem is compounded by our brains’ tendency to overestimate the probability of an event based on how recent, vivid and familiar it is (a phenomenon known as the availability heuristic). Thus, those who regularly get information from news media—saturated as it is with reports of negative events—tend to overestimate the likelihood that they will be affected by the reported misfortunes. They may fall into catastrophic thinking that can lead to a sense of helplessness: What’s the point of getting a vaccine if I might still get COVID-19?; What’s the point of voting if it won’t change anything?; What’s the point of having children if we’re all going to die from global warming?
Every day, headlines warn of humanity’s next greatest threat. In Canada, before we had emerged from the third wave of COVID-19, the media had moved on to foreshadowing a fourth wave. Also, given the continued reporting on crime, terrorism, environmental disasters, opioid epidemics, the possibility of economic collapse, racism and inequality, reading the news, you’d think we were living at the darkest time in human history.
Is the world actually getting worse? According to Pinker, the data suggest that, overall, it is not. But so long as the maxim if it bleeds, it leads continues to reign, catastrophic news reporting will interact with our cognitive biases to create the illusion that everything is going downhill.