The estimated probability that a COVID-19 article is negative varies from 60 percent to 100 percent among major U.S. outlets. These probabilities do not align with the likelihood that conservative consumers of news trust the source. COVID-19 stories from Fox News are more negative than those from CNN. We obtain similar results using the share of negative words in the article.
Of course, different news organizations, and their viewers or readers, are going to have at least slightly different appetites and probably slightly different notions of what constitutes “bad news.” Fox News viewers are probably much more interested in “bad news” in the form of Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes, over-the-top enforcement of draconian lockdowns, and elected officials breaking their own lockdown rules.
CNN and other mainstream-media institutions seem to have a limitless appetite for anything that can make Florida or Texas or other red states look bad, and support their preferred not-so-accurate narrative that Ron DeSantis is reckless and that the state of Georgia is “conducting an experiment in human sacrifice.”
It’s been odd, covering this pandemic and spending much of 2020 being slammed as as doomsayer — 360,000 deaths by New Year’s Day, more than 555,000 by yesterday seems pretty darn bad! — and now spending much of 2021 being told I’m being too optimistic. (The vaccines are an epic success and a game changer, the schools can reopen at least part-time if not full time, and we should allow people to start attending ball games.) My sense is that people develop their own individual sense of “how it’s going,” and if you contradict their internal assessment in either direction, they get really irked with you.
Confirmation bias runs through the veins and arteries of news audiences. During this pandemic, a lot of people on the left side of the spectrum wanted to hear that President Trump was messing it all up, that uninformed red-state hicks were killing themselves and their loved ones by refusing to wear masks, that Christians and Orthodox Jews were recklessly gathering for religious services, that selfish and greedy bars and restaurants were reopening with no concern for people’s safety, and that they, the good progressives who believed in “SCIENCE!” and could work from home, would be the ones who emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed.
Meanwhile, a lot of people on the right side of the spectrum wanted to hear that blue states were turning into fascistic nanny states with finger-wagging “Karen” snoops and informants, that the lengthy closure of schools represented a catastrophe for children, that “the experts” had been proven wrong on all of their initial assessments of the dangers of the virus, and that Black Lives Matter protests had spread the virus further.
For much of the past year, the dominant theme of a lot of pandemic coverage has been, “Yes, the virus is bad, but those who disagree with me are making it all so much worse.”