Recently this column noted the widespread failure of American media to
put Covid risks in context, and also the disturbing habit of “fact
checkers” to brand accurate Trump vaccine predictions as false. Now
researchers from the Ivy League of all places report a striking
pessimism among major U.S. media outlets in their coverage of the virus compared to scientific journals and overseas media outlets.
Readers can only guess why U.S. major media outlets in 2020 would be so
much more inclined than others to downplay potential positive news
about the fight against the virus. Today’s news coincidentally provides
a case study.
The Journal’s Jenny Strasburg and Joseph Walker report today from
AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford added their
vaccine candidate to a growing list of shots showing promising
effectiveness against Covid-19—setting in motion disparate
regulatory and distribution tracks that executives and
researchers hope will result in the start of widespread
vaccinations by the end of the year.
AstraZeneca and Oxford said their vaccine was as much as 90%
effective in preventing the infection without serious side
effects in large clinical trials, though they said the
vaccine’s efficacy varied widely based on dosage…
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that a Covid-19
vaccine can help us out of this pandemic, the announcement
today…should surely dispel that doubt,” said Prof. Eleanor
Riley, an immunology and infectious-disease expert at
Scotland’s University of Edinburgh.
The doubters have been highly concentrated in U.S. newsrooms. In a new
study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, authors from
Dartmouth and Brown report:
The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in
areas with positive scientific developments including school
re-openings and vaccine trials… 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.
There was an amazing vaccine development story taking place, even if
many media folk failed to recognize it. As for the specific vaccine in
the news today, the NBER authors review the recent history:
On February 18th, the Oxford Mail published a story that
Professor Sarah Gilbert and her colleagues at Oxford’s Jenner
Institute were working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus
and that rapid vaccine development could be possible given the
scientists’ existing work and experience with a possible MERS
In contrast to Oxford Mail’s reporting, the U.S. major media
outlets of Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, and The
Washington Post did not begin coverage of Professor Gilbert’s
COVID-19 related work until late April.
The U.S. based stories emphasized caveats from health officials
and experts downplaying the optimistic timeline and past
success of the Oxford researchers. The earliest available
(major outlet) U.S. 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.”
Perhaps Dr. Whitty should consider a career in political polling, where significant forecasting errors are now more or less expected. As for
the tendency toward pessimism, the authors of the NBER paper see a
“similar disconnect” when it comes to U.S. major media reporting on
school reopenings and note:
…the reporting is overwhelmingly negative, while the scientific
literature tells a more optimistic story. Oster (2020) collects
data on school reopenings and COVID-19 infections within
schools and districts.
She finds that infection rates among students remain low (at
0.14 percent) and schools have not become the super-spreaders
many feared. Guthrie et al (2020) and Viner et al (2020) review
the available evidence and reach similar conclusions. However,
ninety percent of school reopening articles from U.S.
mainstream media are negative versus only 56 percent for the
English-language major media in other countries.
Did a distaste for President Trump lead to errors in covering the Covid
story in 2020? If so, the potential problem is not limited to the press
corps and its medical reporting.