A study published by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research finds that coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the domestic press was overwhelmingly negative. More negative than the international press. More negative than the local press. And more negative than the science. But then a funny thing happened after President Donald Trump lost his reelection bid.
Researchers at Dartmouth College and Brown University did a content analysis of tens of thousands of COVID-19 news stories to look at the levels of negativity. What they found was that 87% of the stories published by the top 15 news sources in the country were negative in tone. That compares with 50% of international news sources, and 64% for scientific journals. They also found the mainstream media were 25 percentage points more likely to be negative than more general U.S news sources.
What’s more, this overwhelming negativity included even “areas with positive developments, including school re-openings and vaccine trials.” And, the researchers determined, the mainstream media coverage was “unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases.”
In other words, the national press in the U.S. was putting a negative spin on everything COVID-related. (The study is titled “Why Is All COVID News Bad News?”)
Those 14 top news sources tracked by the researchers, by the way, included only two that might be considered conservative – Fox News and the New York Post.
The researchers claim that the major U.S. media outlets were simply feeding the public’s desire for gloomy news.
“Our results suggest that U.S. major outlets publish unusually negative COVID-19 stories in response to reader demand and interest,” authors write.
But that doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t local news be just as negative? Or international news?
We have a much better theory: The mainstream press was feeding the public a steady diet of negative COVID stories to tarnish Trump in hopes of driving him from office.
Even the authors sort of acknowledge this, without pointing out the implications. At one point, they write that: “Potentially positive developments such as vaccine stories receive less attention from U.S. outlets than do negative stories about Trump and hydroxychloroquine.”
What’s more, a chart published by the New York Times based on the study’s data shows that the mainstream press’ fixation on bad COVID news started to lift once Joe Biden declared himself winner of the November 2020 election.
The Times’ David Leonhardt inadvertently admits the real reason for tone of COVID coverage.
“I have worked in media for nearly three decades, and I think you might be surprised by how little time journalists spend talking about audience size,” he writes, commenting on the NBER study. “We care about it, obviously, but most journalists I know care much more about other factors, like doing work that has an impact.”
”Has an impact,” eh? Like, say, driving a president you don’t like out of office?
There’s a precedent for this. When George H.W. Bush was running for reelection in 1992, coverage of the economy was overwhelmingly negative, despite the fact that one of the shallowest and shortest recessions on record ended in March 1991.
One survey found that “a majority of U.S. journalists who followed the 1992 presidential campaign believe President Bush’s candidacy was damaged by press coverage of his record and of the economy.”
As soon as that election was over, the press suddenly started reporting good economic news.
We all know how deplorably biased the mainstream media is. But even we can be stunned when we see blatant evidence of it like this.
We analyze the tone of COVID-19 related English-language news articles written since January 1, 2020. Ninety one percent of stories by U.S. major media outlets are negative in tone versus fifty four percent for non-U.S. major sources and sixty five percent for scientific journals. The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive scientific developments including school re-openings and vaccine trials. Media negativity is unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases or the political leanings of the audience. U.S. major media readers strongly prefer negative stories about COVID-19, and negative stories in general. Stories of increasing COVID-19 cases outnumber stories of decreasing cases by a factor of 5.5 even during periods when new cases are declining. Among U.S. major media outlets, stories discussing President Donald Trump and hydroxychloroquine are more numerous than all stories combined that cover companies and individual researchers working on COVID-19 vaccines.