Issues & Insights

Study: Media Reported Only Bad COVID News (Until Trump Lost)

Source: U.S. Air Force, Melody B. Bordeaux

I&I Editorial

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.

— Written by the I&I Editorial Board

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The Issues and Insights Editorial Board has decades of experience in journalism, commentary and public policy.

6 comments

  • “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.” I & I Editorial Board

    After several years of Russiagate misinformation, what many call a giant “false” “conspiracy theory” widely promoted via the FBI, Clinton campaign, mainstream media, etc. (and still believed by >40% of the country and promoted by the party in power and its allies), it is refreshing to retain the capacity for being stunned. Seems to be getting crazier every day. The political party in power goosesteps in remarkable unity, and like arrogant Potemkin sailors drunk on power are acting out a daily Theater of the Absurd in the news. No doubt, plenty more stunning media studies in our future.

  • How often must we say that this is not about a pandemic. This lockdown is about politics, pure and simple.

  • Schools of journalism may still instruct impartial principles of the trade by rote, but many of their graduates practice the profession allied with a specific political agenda. I understand that opinion journalism is different from the nuts-and-bolts of the police blotter, but when the other side of the issue is not covered, then not only does Paul Harvey turn in his grave but truth is drowned in printer’s ink and the electorate is ill-served by political bias.

  • Reporting only bad news is bad, unprofessional, and biassed reporting. The media were actually much worse. I’ve read books and articles on the psychology of Pandemics. Despite all the differences of opinion, one theme is a continuous thread through all of them: The need for Government and leaders to speak as one to unify the public. The media was premeditated in working against that undeniably good practice.

    Their undermining and spread of false, not just biased, information arguably led to many deaths. How many thousands would be a worthwhile study and a worthwhile issue for Republicans. If this had been pushed earlier Trump would probably still be President because the damage caused by single-minded public covid communications would have been, at least in part, mitigated by the truth. How’s this for a slogan:

    “The Media Lied, Tens of Thousands Died”

  • “…Media Reported Only Bad COVID News (Until Trump Lost)” NO WAY! LOL! Good thing there was a study or nobody would ever have figured it out!

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Issues & Insights is run by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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