Bruce Sacerdote, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook published a research paper at the beginning of the year showing that media coverage of Covid-19 was biased toward negative stories.
In turn, the paper generated media coverage which I saw processed largely in terms of partisan politics, with conservatives assimilating it to larger critiques of ideological bias and progressives snarking that of course you emphasize the bad news about a virus that kills millions of people globally.
But the study was more careful and more interesting than that. They note, for example, that scientists developed and regulators approved a number of different safe and effective vaccines on an unprecedented timeline. That’s good news. And the worse you think the pandemic is, the better the vaccine news is. And when they say that coverage accentuated the negative, that’s what they mean — not that the press forgot to mention the upside of mass death, but that stories about progress in combatting the illness got underplayed. It would be as if newspapers in World War II decided they weren’t that interested in Allied victories.
It’s also not a partisan story. The authors aren’t following the convention where “the media” is taken to exclude incredibly popular and influential media outlets simply because they slant right. Fox News and the New York Post are in the database. What they find is that “the most influential U.S. news sources are outliers in terms of the negative tone of their coronavirus stories and their choices of stories covered,” and “we are unable to explain these patterns using differential political views of their audiences or time patterns in infection rates.”
In other words, conservative and liberal outlets alike emphasized the negative. The intra-media difference is that the biggest and most influential outlets were more negative. And within those outlets, “the most popular stories … have high levels of negativity for all types of articles.”
In other words, the negativity bias in Covid coverage didn’t come from the liberal media being out to get Trump. It came from you, the reading and viewing public, who strongly prefer to consume negativity-inflected stories on all types of topics, creating a situation where the biggest and most influential media brands have gotten really good at delivering the negativity that the people crave.
Joe Biden hasn’t stopped Covid negativism
I think a lot of people on the American right sincerely believed that gloom-inflected media coverage of the pandemic in 2020 was designed to stick it to Donald Trump.
And certainly, there was an aspect of partisan contestation around the pandemic.
When you have the President of the United States saying “it will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” (January 24), “the 15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero” (February 26), “we’re doing a great job with it and it will go away” (March 10), two things happen. First, anyone offering a more realistic assessment of the situation becomes de facto anti-Trump because Trump is childish and reacts to unwelcome factual information as criticism. Second, negativity per se becomes anti-Trump resistance, so you get stories like “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice” published in late April.
But on the conservative theory of this, Biden’s inauguration should have prompted a new era of joyful media optimism. In fact, we’ve seen the reverse. In February, a lot of prominent stories were warning that vaccines might not block Covid transmission. In March, a widely discussed New York Times story darkly warned that “experts now believe” herd immunity would never arise in the United States, based on a logic that seemed to completely ignore acquired immunity on the part of people who get sick.
This is a story about how fewer people are dying of Covid-19.
This story, obviously, is not false. Even with the daily death toll far lower than what it was just a few weeks ago, there are still hundreds of people dying. That’s a very sad event for their families. If you or someone you love is personally gravely ill right now, then it’s true that “the worst has just begun” for you. But why the interest in such a negative framing? Is it remotely plausible it’s a deliberate effort to sabotage Joe Biden? Of course not. It’s business. This is what the people want.
International news is the other place you see greatly increased attention to negativity. Friday morning, the two top Covid stories on the New York Times webpage were a profile of a hard-hit neighborhood in India and “Third Wave Feared in Africa as Vaccinations Waiver.”
Now those are not perverse framings. Objectively speaking, the residents of Africa and India are human beings just like me and my friends and family here in the United States. Their lives matter, and for people in those parts of the world, the pandemic really is worse than ever right now. If I believed the prominence given to those stories reflected a newfound media commitment to consistently focus more attention on the developing world and the global poor, that would be fascinating. But this is not my first week reading the newspaper. When you get a situation where there’s good news from abroad, nobody cares or hears about it — despite prestige media’s best efforts.
People like bad news
A really large chunk of my career played out during what was, for the United States, a very rough economic patch characterized by a huge recession and a very slow labor market recovery. This period was also, in global terms, by far the greatest period of economic prosperity in human history. That’s first and foremost because of very rapid economic growth in the People’s Republic of China — but China was also joined by rapid growth in other major countries. India, Indonesia, and other Asian states were hitting all-time highs in GDP per capita while America was in the doldrums in 2013.
Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where economic difficulties remained severe, the share of people suffering from extreme global poverty was falling.
But polls showed very little public awareness of these happy facts in rich countries, both because they were not covered much in the western media but also because when the western media did try to cover them, we didn’t get much of an audience. If this November 2013 story I did about how we were living through the best of times had been more popular, I’d have written more about it. But the people like gloom and doom! Now that the news out of India is genuinely terrifying, it is getting more play.
But while complaining about the media is everyone’s favorite pastime, I think the evidence supports the view that this is audience-driven. Representative Ilhan Omar got sky-high levels of engagement for tweeting that America was less generous to the unemployed than Canada, when the truth is the exact opposite.
People like to get mad.
Is competition driving us crazy?
One big problem here is that while people enjoy clicking on content that makes them mad and then angrily sharing it so their peers can share their outrage, being mad all the time is not actually satisfying or conducive to human happiness.
An interesting part of the Sacerdote, Sehgal, and Cook paper is their note that audience demand for negativity seems to exist cross-nationally, but the United States stands out in that our media sector is more willing to supply it. They speculate that this has something to do with the United States having a more competitive and more efficient media sector, rather than a lot of “fair and balanced” regulations or a big bland public broadcaster that dominates the scene.
But of course, even in Europe, public broadcasters’ influence is waning thanks to the internet. And that has political consequences. Looking at Europe, Sergei Guriev, Nikita Melnikov, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya find that the rollout of mobile broadband is associated with reduced confidence in government and more voting for both right-populist and left-populist parties. Max Schaub and David Morisi look at wired broadband specifically in Germany and Italy and find the same thing. The US media sector is big and highly competitive across all modes at this point. When Fox News wouldn’t deliver to conservatives the bad news that the election had been stolen by Joe Biden, OAN and Newsmax started gaining market share.
People express a lot of concern about the spread of “misinformation” on social media, but I think it’s telling that when researchers got people to deactivate Facebook for four weeks, they became less informed.
And in terms of negativity, you can certainly find examples of false stories with negative angles, but negativity bias is mostly not about falseness. Journalists take accuracy very seriously. But they also try to do stories that people will read, and competition and modern technology mean they are getting better at optimizing for that. In addition to deactivators becoming less informed, the researchers found that their subjective well-being improved and the new habit of using social media less was persistent. This is to say that the kind of stories people like to consume are compulsive rather than satisfying. And I think a dive into the negativity bias stuff helps explain why. You’re clicking and sharing stories about terrible things and raising alarms and listening to the alarms that are being raised by others, and it all feels very compelling precisely because it’s gloomy and alarming — you need to worry about the variants, and the breakthroughs, and the situation in India, and what if the situation in India gives rise to new variants that lead to more breakthroughs! But it’s not reflective of overall reality. Stories like rapid economic growth in Bangladesh are just not going to break through in the same way as “we need to pay attention to South Asia so we can stay alarmed about Covid.”
Something funny that I noticed recently is that if you ask people about their personal finances, they say today that things are nearly as good as they were in February 2020 or at the peak of the dot-com bust. But perceptions of the state of the national economy are much worse than that. Everyone feels like they are doing okay, but they’ve heard that things are bad!
Blaming the audience
If I could sum my thesis up, most people like to blame “the media” for things, and most media people like to blame big tech for things. There is truth to all of that, but on another level, the problem is the audience.
The internet has made the media landscape much more competitive. That’s been bad for the profitability of the media sector, but it has also hyper-empowered the audience and given readers the ability to become far more informed than ever before. Unfortunately, readers in practice tend to put their newfound hyper-empowerment to bad use. People would rather read a local news story out of a mid-sized suburb of a city they don’t live in that proves them right about racism/wokeness/whatever than read a local news story about a budget debate taking place in their own city council.
And then what Facebook has done is put tremendous brainpower to work at further empowering the audience and even more efficiently delivering what you want. Leaders over there seem paralyzed between wanting to promise that they are making changes to improve their product, and grumbling beneath their breath that the real reason bad stuff happens on social media is that it’s full of human beings who are bad. I basically agree with the executives about that — it’s not “the algorithm” (which literally just recommends you things your friends engage with) that creates bad outcomes, it’s the users.
But there are lots of products like that. The NRA used to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That’s clearly true — the vast majority of gun owners aren’t murdering anyone. But the evidence is really clear that widespread gun ownership leads to more murders and more suicides. In the same way, I think that empowering readers turns out to be much more socially and even interpersonally destructive than you might think.