PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Molly Cook didn’t know exactly what would come of her Summer 2020 research assistantship — but she certainly never expected it would make national headlines.
Cook, a junior concentrating in economics and applied mathematics at Brown University, spent the warmer months of 2020 working virtually with Dartmouth College economist Bruce Sacerdote and Dartmouth undergraduate Ranjan Sehgal on a timely research question: Why does all American COVID-19 news seem like bad news? And is media coverage equally negative elsewhere in the world?
With supervision from Sacerdote, Cook and Sehgal developed virus-related news search terms, downloaded thousands of news articles from LexisNexis and created a model to assess each article’s tone using sentiment-analysis dictionaries. Ultimately, the research team found that 91% of pandemic-related news stories published in major American media outlets between March and late July were negative in tone, compared to 54% of stories in major international news outlets and 65% of articles in scientific journals. Notably, they saw that those American outlets’ negative tone didn’t let up when cases declined in the summer, nor when pharmaceutical companies made major progress in developing a vaccine.
In November 2020 — the same week Pfizer released news that its COVID-19 vaccine had proven 95% effective in trials — their findings were published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. In the weeks that followed, Cook saw her name appear in the Washington Post, Fortune and MarketWatch, among other high-visibility news sources.
With spring semester courses at Brown now starting — and vaccine distribution beginning across the United States as COVID-19 cases reach previously unseen heights — Cook answered questions about her participation in the study, American news coverage and more.
Q: How did you become interested in economics? And what does economics have to do with this study on news coverage?
I had never taken economics before coming to Brown, but I had a feeling it would align well with my interests and skillset, because I enjoy math and want to answer questions that naturally come up in economics about equity and distribution. I think a lot of people don’t realize you can answer big societal questions using economics and econometric techniques. They associate economics with questions about exchange rates and tax policy, and they seem surprised when I tell them I’m interested in the social side: What motivates people to make the choices they make? What do people do with a finite amount of resources?
In my first year, I took Principles of Economics and Mathematical Microeconomics. I loved learning how you could use math to model and think about behavior. I did some research on the types of things economists at Brown were studying, and I noticed that they had been able to answer a host of questions across a spectrum of subjects that interested me, like poverty and parenting.
In the spring of 2020, I was part of that mad dash of undergraduates who were trying to find summer work opportunities in the midst of a pandemic. I’m from Hanover, New Hampshire, and so I heard about the work Professor Sacerdote was doing and reached out to him. Participating in this research felt like a productive way to make sense of the unique moment we were living in and a great way to apply the skills I’ve learned at Brown to a modern-day issue.