Ludovica Dri/Unsplash

Conversations on COVID: Is all pandemic news really bad news?

Molly Cook, a junior at Brown, participated in a research project that found that major American news outlets took a more negative tone in their COVID-19 coverage than international news outlets or scientific journals.

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.

I expect that for lots of people, the gut reaction to this result might be, 'Well, of course the tone is going to be negative. Millions have gotten sick! Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost!' But I think it’s important to note that we’re making a relative statement.

Molly Cook Class of 2022

Q: What inspired the subject of the study?

Professor Sacerdote noticed that British media sources started reporting encouraging progress toward COVID-19 vaccine development as early as February, but American media didn’t start reporting these results until April — and when they did, they emphasized caveats to the optimistic timeline predicted by scientists. He saw that lots of the stories in major American news outlets took the tone of, “Oh, there’s no way a vaccine is going to be developed in 2020, and even if it is, distribution will be a nightmare.”

Then he noticed that, even as case counts started going down in the summer, there was still an endless stream of negative news about the pandemic. He felt like the major news media seemed to be conveying a sense of, “We’ve put our lives on hold for so long, yet nothing seems to be getting better,” even when statistics were telling a different story. He wanted to explore this feeling of getting endless negative news: Was it a real, meaningful pattern?

Q: And what did you find?

We found that the major American media are significantly more likely than major international media, scientific journals and smaller U.S. news outlets to use a negative tone in stories about the pandemic. 

I expect that for lots of people, the gut reaction to this result might be, “Well, of course the tone is going to be negative. Millions have gotten sick! Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost!” But I think it’s important to note that we’re making a relative statement. The 15 or 20 most widely read U.S. news sources are painting a significantly more negative picture than international media and less widely read American news sources.

We also plotted the level of negativity in the tone of news coverage alongside daily case counts, and we found that for the most-read American news sources, the level of negativity was pretty constantly high from March to the end of July and didn’t fluctuate when cases substantially increased or decreased. 

One thing I find particularly interesting is that we found that these news sources produced more articles on President Trump’s comments about hydroxychloroquine than on prosocial behavior or vaccine development.

Q: Why do you think American media outlets are accentuating the negative much more than their non-American peers?

We posit in the paper that the negativity could be driven by reader demand. The most-read news articles on the New York Times website, whether they’re about COVID-19 or about something else, are more likely to be negative than less well-read articles, according to our model. Of course, we don’t have enough evidence to say with certainty that there’s a causal relationship there.

Another theory we floated, but ultimately rejected, is that the tone could have something to do with the partisanship of the audience. While we did find that the New York Times was just as likely to take a negative tone as Fox News in their pandemic coverage, we’re interested in looking at how that negativity might manifest differently across outlets with strongly partisan owners.

Q: How does the tone of the news we consume influence our perceptions and opinions?

The sense I’ve gotten from participating in this research is that what people read every morning really does impact their sense of urgency in the midst of the pandemic. What news outlets put out there really does affect how people think about this public health crisis. If news outlets are choosing to emphasize negative storylines in response to reader demand, rather than in response to real scientific developments or changes in caseloads, that has implications for how we think and feel about the pandemic.

Q: What do you recommend Americans do to make sure they’re getting the full story about the pandemic?

One recommendation I have is to read more articles from scientific journals. Some of the leading journals, like The Lancet and Nature, are offering free access to scientific papers about the novel coronavirus and vaccine development. In our research, we talked about how scientific journals have functioned as a sort of secondary news source during the pandemic, and so we thought they would be an interesting point of comparison in our study. As we now know, scientific literature about the pandemic is less negative in tone than articles in major American news outlets — so if people read academic sources, they may derive more nuanced conclusions about COVID-19.

I think what’s also important — and this applies all the time, not just in a pandemic — is to read more widely and take everything you read with a grain of salt. I really like reading the New York Times, but I also find it valuable to broaden my perspective by reading stories from trusted international news sources and top scientific journals. If you’re not diversifying your news intake, it’s likely you’re not getting the full picture.