Facts are the first casualties of political competition. Politicians paint reality in ways that suit their purposes. When facts align with a preferred reality, they are trumpeted and readily embraced. When they do not align, they are discarded or discredited. This presents a problem for democracies which encourage citizens to make informed and sensible judgments about political matters. Why should we expect citizens to be informed if political leaders manipulate the facts?
One remedy is an independent and balanced news media. A free and unbiased press can present the facts to citizens and thus counter the spread of political misinformation.
With this in mind, let’s consider two recent studies about COVID-19.
The severity of COVID-19?
The first study conducted during July-August of 2020 by Franklin Templeton-Gallup Economics of Recovery Study asked U.S. adults,
“what percentage of people who have been infected by the coronavirus needed to be hospitalized? 0%, 1-5%, 6-10%, 11-19%, 20-49%, 50%+”
As the authors noted, the precise answer to this question is unknown. However, the best available evidence place the figure between 1 and 5 percent.
Overall, less the 20% of U.S. adults selected the correct answer. A stunning 35% said that at least half of those infected needed hospitalization. Indeed, most respondents overestimated – notably overestimated – the percentages that somebody with covid needed hospitalization.
In addition, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to overestimate. Nearly 70% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans believed 20% or more of those infected would need hospital care. Moreover, 41% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans believed half or more of those infected needed hospitalization. Only 10% of Democrats and 26% of Republicans identified the correct answer.
On additional questions about covid, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to respond accurately. Most Democrats recognized COVID-19 could be spread by people without symptoms (77% to 63%). And Democrats (87%) were more accurate than Republicans (59%) in judging COVID-19 as a greater mortality risk than the seasonal flu.
In short, the data show a public deeply misinformed about the severity of COVID-19. And neither political party demonstrated a firm grasp of COVID-19 facts. Party attachments do not encourage a dispassionate weighing of evidence.
The news media
Theoretically, the news media can reduce the spread of political misinformation. After all, the news media disseminate much of the information the public relies upon to assess the risks of COVID-19.
An impressive analysis of news media content both in the United States and abroad demonstrated that the most influential U.S. news sources were outliers in terms of the negative tone about the coronavirus. The top 15 media outlets (including NYT, CNN, FOX, USA Today, ABC, NBC, CBS) were 25% more likely to be negative than general U.S. media sources or major news sources outside the United States.
The negativity was pervasive, and stories included words like alarming, anxious, angry, dead, cold, fear, grave, greed, hate, bad, dreadful, scary, shocking, ugly unfair, unfavorable, to name only a few. Reading and hearing these words everyday may understandably impact how people weigh the risks of the virus.
In addition, across the many weeks of the study, the probabilities that U.S. mainstream media would broadcast negative COVID-19 coverage was exceptionally high. Those probabilities in fact varied little, even when actual case counts were low (see the figure below and compare red to green lines). In other words, a significant decline in covid cases did not impact the news about covid – it was negative regardless. Finally, the U.S. mainstream media broadcasted substantially more negative news than comparable international mainstream sources.
Without question, a significant proportion of news about COVID-19 should be negative. The virus exploded into a global pandemic – producing a once in a lifetime public health crisis, which killed thousands of Americans. It led to nationwide lock downs and widespread economic devastation.
But there was positive news as well – if the media wanted to broadcast it. For example, long before experts thought an effective vaccine possible, several companies developed one. In less than a year, highly effective vaccines were ready for delivery. Furthermore, there was truly good news about the very low mortality and hospitalization rate among young people and children. These facts permitted the re-opening of schools and accelerated the economic recovery.
Yet the media gloom persisted. For example, on February 18, a London newspaper published a piece about Professor Sarah Gilbert and colleagues at Oxford working on a vaccine that could be available relatively quickly. U.S. news outlets ignored the story and did not air it until late April. At that time, stories emphasized caveats from public health officials, quoting one saying the probability of having a vaccine or treatment “anytime in the next calendar year is incredibly small.” Likewise, the study found that 90% of school reopening stories from U.S. mainstream media were negative.
The two figures below demonstrate substantially higher negativity for U.S. major media in stories specifically about vaccine development and school re-openings. Only the U.S. major media produced stories (on average) that included more negative words than positive words .
Positive stories illustrating factual developments about vaccines and school re-openings would have offset the unrelenting negativity that news consumers confronted daily. As important, positive news based on emerging facts may have led the public to weigh the risks of covid much differently — perhaps more accurately.
But, as the study’s authors concluded, “Potentially positive developments such as vaccine stories receive less attention from U.S. outlets than do negative stories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine.”
Ultimately, individuals are responsible for assessing life’s risks and acting accordingly. However, people depend crucially on the news media to provide information to help define those risks. When the public cannot accurately determine basic facts about the most important health story in decades, then it’s likely a systemic problem.
Immediately, let’s exclude the two political parties from blame. Their function is to win elections – not educate the public. Yes, the parties spread misinformation. But candidly, that’s always been true. Why expect impartial information from Republicans? From Democrats? From any political organizations?
But we do expect more from the news media. Ideally, the news media should present a reasonably accurate portrait of the political world. An attentive public then sifts through the information and makes an informed judgment.
Instead, we now have a news media driven relentlessly by profits. And that profit motive creates a news media determined to narrow cast an overwhelmingly negative reality to receptive partisan audiences.
Negativity has an impact. People become alarmed, anxious, and frightened. They find it difficult to discern facts when stories constantly tug on their emotions and communicate only the most dreadful of circumstances. A climate of fear emerges and judgments about COVID-19 hinge on the unpleasant exceptions – the outliers – rather than general patterns. As news-makers and news organizations recognize, the rare and odd instances occupy our minds more so than the common and familiar.
Finally, the graph below illustrates Fox News and CNN were equally negative – the share of negative words in their broadcasts are nearly the same. Democrat and Republican news consumers are thus equally exposed to negative news about covid – just of a different sort. There is also significant variation among progressive news media sources – for example, the New York Times and CNN are notably more negative than CBS or NBC.
News media negativity is thus not specific to a partisan source. It’s a problem for everyone.