U.S. Media Covid-19 Stories More Negative than World Media Stories and than Scientific Journal Stories

(p. A8) Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, noticed something last year about the Covid-19 television coverage that he was watching on CNN and PBS. It almost always seemed negative, regardless of what was he seeing in the data or hearing from scientists he knew.

When Covid cases were rising in the U.S., the news coverage emphasized the increase. When cases were falling, the coverage instead focused on those places where cases were rising. And when vaccine research began showing positive results, the coverage downplayed it, as far as Sacerdote could tell.

But he was not sure whether his perception was correct. To check, he began working with two other researchers, building a database of Covid coverage from every major network, CNN, Fox News, Politico, The New York Times and hundreds of other sources, in the U.S. and overseas. The researchers then analyzed it with a social-science technique that classifies language as positive, neutral or negative.

The results showed that Sacerdote’s instinct had been right — and not just because the pandemic has been mostly a grim story.

The coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media. “The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity,” Molly Cook, a co-author of the study, told me.

About 87 percent of Covid coverage in national U.S. media last year was negative. The share was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media and 64 percent in scientific journals.

For the full commentary, see:

David Leonhardt. “The Pandemic Is a Grim Story, but is Bad news the Only Kind?” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 24, 2021): A8.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the title “Bad News Bias.”)

The study discussed above is:

Sacerdote, Bruce, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook. “Why Is All Covid-19 News Bad News?” National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper #28110, Nov. 2020.

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