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Research shows that America’s media is peddling fear, not news, on Covid-19

The strange phenomenon of Non-Covid-Covid deaths

On November 30th, the New York Post carried a story titled: ‘16-year-old Wisconsin student abruptly dies of COVID-19-related illness‘. The Post reported:

Isai Morocho, a junior at East High School in Madison, died with “COVID-19 pneumonia,” the student’s father, Milton Morocho, told Spanish-language news outlet Miwisconsin.com.

But, reading on, we learn:

Isai’s father told Miwisconsin that his son was suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, but did not exhibit any respiratory symptoms common among coronavirus patients.

The high schooler had also tested negative for COVID-19 at the hospital days before his death, his father said.

This death, while tragic, had nothing to do with Covid-19 apart from the headline.

Last week, Business Insider carried a story titled ‘Kristi Noem’s grandmother died in a nursing home hit by COVID-19 as the South Dakota governor continued to downplay the virus‘. We are told that:

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s grandmother died in a nursing home hit by COVID-19 in November, as the politician continued to downplay the seriousness of the virus and avoided putting a mask mandate in place despite a rising case count in the state.

But we are then told:

Noem’s 98-year-old grandmother Aldys Arnold tested negative for COVID-19 before she died on November 22, but 12 others at Estelline Nursing Home and Care Center in South Dakota died from “COVID-related” causes between November 14 and 28, the facility’s administrator Mike Ward told the Daily Beast. [Emphasis added]

In other words, as with the death of Isai Morocho, that of Gov. Noem’s 98-year-old grandmother had nothing to do with Covid-19.

These are not isolated examples. In a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Bruce Sacerdote, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook analyzed “the tone of COVID-19 related English-language news articles written since January 1, 2020”. They found:

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…Stories of increasing COVID-19 cases outnumber stories of decreasing cases by a factor of 5.5 even during periods when new cases are declining. Among U.S. major media outlets, stories discussing President Donald Trump and hydroxychloroquine are more numerous than all stories combined that cover companies and individual researchers working on COVID-19 vaccines.

America’s media is peddling fear.

Keeping people scared

Why?

For one thing, commercial news outlets don’t cover their costs with ‘truth’ but with ad revenues. In other words, outlets like Kare 11 or the Star Tribune are in the businesses of selling viewer’s and reader’s eyeballs to their advertisers. So, they have to attract those eyeballs. And bad news sells, as the old saying goes. Sacerdote, Sehgal, and Cook find that “U.S. major media readers strongly prefer negative stories about COVID-19, and negative stories in general”. Psychologists call it ‘Negativity bias‘.

For others there is a high minded, public interest to be served in scaring the pants off us. In the New York Times this week, Elisabeth Rosenthal, a former E.R. physician who is now editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, wrote:

It’s time to make people scared and uncomfortable. It’s time for some sharp, focused terrifying realism.

“I’m not talking fear-mongering,” she explains, “but showing in a straightforward and graphic way what can happen with the virus.” And what might this involve?

…maybe we need a P.S.A. featuring someone actually on a ventilator in the hospital. You might see that person “bucking the vent” — bodies naturally rebel against the machine forcing pressurized oxygen into the lungs, which is why patients are typically sedated.

Another message could feature a patient lying in an I.C.U. bed, immobile, tubes in the groin, with a mask delivering 100 percent oxygen over the mouth and nose — eyes wide with fear, watching the saturation numbers rise and dip on the monitor over the bed.

But while these things can happen with the virus they are not very likely to happen with the virus. In Minnesota, for example, Department of Health data show that just 5.3% of diagnosed Covid-19 cases have required hospitalization and just 1.2% have required ICU care. Rosenthal absolutely is talking fear-mongering.

Occasionally, policy makers and pundits will harrumph about ‘Covid fatigue’, that people are less willing to endure lockdowns and other restrictions than they once were. Perhaps, just perhaps, the constant shrieking from America’s media – which isn’t warranted by the data – has worn people down?

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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