America’s bad news bias is a feature not a bug


A US Centers for Disease Control computer rendering of Covid-19


“What the country needs is dirtier fingernails and cleaner minds”
– Will Rogers

Bad news bias is not breaking news. Recently published research by Bruce Sacerdote (pdf), an economics professor at Dartmouth College, asked a troubling question: “Why is all Covid-19 news bad news?”

The paper covered the negative “tone” of the US media, versus non-US media. It found that 87 per cent of pandemic coverage in the US is negative, versus 50 per cent for non-US major sources and 64 per cent for scientific journals. The persistent negativity had nothing to do with the political leanings of the audience.

It was all so different from the way the media once regarded the news. A London Review of Books piece (paywall) noted that on Good Friday 1930, listeners who tuned in to the BBC for the 6.30 evening news bulletin heard that “There is no news tonight”. And “piano music filled the hiatus before the next programme”.

It’s fair to say things are a lot less wholesome now, especially in the US. Professor Sacerdote’s paper starts with a telling example — the manner in which American media outlets covered news of rapid vaccine development in Oxford. The story, reported on February 18, 2020 by the Oxford Daily Mail,  mentioned Professor Sarah Gilbert and her Jenner Institute colleagues’ work and experience with a possible MERS vaccine. That sounded promising but major US media outlets — Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post — did not cover the development until April 1, says the paper. When they did cover it, the American outlets, “emphasized caveats from health officials and experts downplaying the optimistic timeline and past success of the Oxford researchers”.

The paper added: “The earliest available (major outlet) US story is from CNN on April 23rd and begins with a quote from England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty saying that the probability of having a vaccine or treatment ‘anytime in the next calendar year’ is ‘incredibly small’.”

A year later, more than 50 million Americans have been vaccinated and the Oxford AstraZeneca may receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. In the U.K., 18.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca had been administered by the beginning of April. This vaccine is being used in many parts of the world.

So is a bad news bias the way to cover something? Obviously not. While it would be foolish to offer relentlessly upbeat accounts of everything, deliberately shading a story to seem dark and gloomy is just as bad.

To its credit, the paper also tries to answer a key question: Why does the American media behave this way?

“First, most of the non-US markets in our sample include a dominant publicly owned 14 news source…(which) may be following a different objective function than private news providers…Second, US media markets are notably less concentrated that media markets in other OECD countries…(and) this higher level of competition may cause US major media companies to use negativity as a tool to attract viewers. Finally, the US Federal Communication Commission eliminated its fairness doctrine regulation in 1987. This regulation required broadcasters to provide adequate coverage of public issues and to fairly represent opposing views.”

The implications of this are obvious. America’s news universe is not a template for other countries.

In this context, it’s worth noting media best practice example recently cited by Delphine Ernotte, president of the European Broadcasting Union. She said broadcasters need to maintain “a very good relationship with our fellow citizens, which means talk a lot, on a daily basis” and pointed to Sweden. There, “journalists would go everywhere in the country to have coffee and cinnamon rolls and a chat with people, and it had a real impact,” said Ms Eernotte, “it changed the way of making TV and news in closer relation with the people”.