How bad-news bias hurt COVID-19 perceptions

If you’re a fan of sharing the latest grim news on COVID-19, please give this Atlantic article a read.

“What’s the harm in sharing such stories?” you may ask. “You can’t be too careful.”

Sure, but …

“I guess you don’t care about all the people who died,” you may say, right before I unfriend you on Facebook.

Going back to the question — the actual harm is as follows:

  1. Anti-vaxxers are pouncing on every over-amplified misstep in vaccine development.
  2. We’re so busy shaming people who aren’t wearing masks outside that we end up sending them inside, where the probability of spreading goes from “tiny” to “substantial.”
  3. Socializing is good for you.
  4. We need clear, accurate information. It’s worth noting that academics aren’t good at presenting such things to the public, and WHO botched the early messaging.

Speaking of academia, a paper from Dartmouth and Brown researchers ponders the significance of all the negativity in our media — most prominently in the USA.

And that’s not surprising. It bleeds, it leads. And that slogan existed before we had a 24/7 news cycle in which TV news (upcoming rant — who the hell watches this stuff and why?) is trying to scare you away from changing the channel.

These links are from the NYT’s “The Morning” newsletter, which I wish I could find and share. I can share this excerpt:

In the modern era of journalism — dating roughly to the Vietnam War and Watergate — we tend to equate impact with asking tough questions and exposing problems. There are some good reasons for that. We are inundated by politicians, business executives, movie stars and others trying to portray themselves in the best light. Our job is to cut through the self-promotion and find the truth. If we don’t tell you the bad news, you may never hear it. Sometimes, though, our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story.

This isn’t a new concept in journalism. One of my grad school textbooks was called Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good, and it distinguished between healthy skepticism (“I’m going to check this out”) and unhealthy cynicism (“You’re wrong. You suck. Shut up.”)

Put another way — I’m fond of saying that people often confuse cynicism with intelligence. Cynicism and pessimism go hand in hand.

I may sometimes put too much of a rosy gloss on things. But hope is important. Solutions are important. And so is accurate information, even when it’s cheerful.


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