Does the news seem overwhelmingly negative these days?
Dartmouth College economics professor Bruce Sacerdote thought so. He felt that news coverage — especially of the coronavirus pandemic — was often more negative than what scientists or data suggested.
Like many Americans at the beginning of the pandemic, Sacerdote was stuck at home watching the news more than usual. He found it “depressing,” he says, and discovered the more his eyes were glued to the news, the more he realized the media was covering COVID-19 in “the worst possible way.”
This prompted him and a team of researchers to analyze tens of thousands of articles about COVID-19 by using a social science technique to determine whether reporting was negative, positive or neutral.
They found news coverage of the pandemic in the U.S. was “shockingly negative” and bleaker than in international news outlets or scientific journals, Sacerdote says.
The study revealed nearly 90% of articles from major U.S. news organizations were negative compared to just 50% to 60% from major international media sources, he says.
While the type of pessimism varied, the research discovered the negative coronavirus coverage comes from media outlets with liberal audiences like MSNBC and conservative audiences like Fox News.
There were times when the media could have focused on the good instead of the bad, but chose to amplify the latter, he says. For example, in early summer last year when cases were trending down nationwide, media outlets would emphasize records in individual states or the cumulative death toll.
“Of course, the cumulative can only go up,” Sacerdote says. “It can't go down.”
When the vaccine rollout began, something that was “fantastically great news,” he says media networks were quick to elevate sometimes “unnecessary” and “overly negative caveats.” These included an emphasis on new virus variants and vaccine side effects.
He and the study’s co-authors surmise that American media outlets could be responding to consumer demand. “We have no one to blame but ourselves,” he says.
The most popular articles, whether that’s quantified by the most viewed or most shared, overwhelmingly center on gloom and doom, he says.
“People do occasionally share or view positive articles, but people tend to gravitate toward the negative,” he says, “and we think that the American media is just very good at giving people what they want.”
Sacerdote isn’t suggesting that journalists are presenting untrue or factually incorrect reports. He means that by stressing the negative, the media isn't presenting the full picture.
While the study’s authors didn’t set out looking for misreporting, he says they didn’t find any specific examples of false information.
“Fundamentally, we don't think that the major American media is in the business of reporting fake news,” he says, “but we think they are in the business of reporting rather negative news and emphasizing the negative news.”
Sacerdote says he and his fellow researchers hope journalists use the study as a reminder to “bring balance to their stories” and put the facts in context.
This segment aired on April 5, 2021.