Why are Americans so prone to wallowing in despair? A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) doesn't have an answer to that question, but it does provide plenty of evidence that the phenomenon is real: U.S. major media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been much more negative than in other English-speaking parts of the world, in large part because of reader demand for unrelentingly bleak news.
NBER researchers found that 65 percent of scientific journal articles and 54 percent of non-U.S. news articles were negative in tone, versus an overwhelming 91 percent of U.S. media reports.
"U.S. major media readers strongly prefer negative stories about COVID-19, and negative stories in general," wrote the authors of the paper, which is rightly titled, "Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?"
The tone of the coverage was only weakly correlated with the reality of the course of the pandemic: There were more than five times as many media articles about rising coronavirus case numbers as there were articles about decreasing coronavirus case numbers, even during the times when cases were actually declining.
The negative coverage was particularly pronounced with respect to two pandemic-related issues: vaccines and schools. On vaccine prospects, U.S. coverage "emphasized caveats from health officials and experts downplaying the optimistic timeline and past success" of vaccine scientists. Indeed, "the terms 'Trump and hydroxychloroquine' receive more coverage than do all stories about companies and researchers developing vaccines," according to the NBER.
Similarly, U.S. media overwhelmingly took a negative view of reopening schools, contrary to both the emerging scientific consensus—which has generally held that it is safe to reopen many schools—and the tone of coverage elsewhere.
The NBER could not discern a partisan breakdown in these findings: Major media outlets on the left and right were both extremely negative relative to their counterparts in other countries.
"Negativity appears to be unrelated to the political leanings of the newspaper's or network's audience," wrote the authors.
These findings are not really so surprising, given the media's strong preference for negative news in general. The aphorism "if it bleeds, it leads" is unfortunately accurate: Newspapers and television programs cover kidnappings and murders with such frequency that it may seem like these tragedies are more common than they actually are. It's also true that we really have ourselves to blame, since the coverage reflects the audience's preferences. Why this appears to be a uniquely American phenomenon remains a mystery.
The consequence of extremely depressing news coverage—even if it's what readers and viewers demand—is, well, more depressed readers and viewers. There is plenty of evidence right now that depression rates are skyrocketing for both children and adults. To address this, the NBER's paper concludes with an endorsement of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Stop consuming so much COVID-19 news, because it's bad for your mental health.