Science Says: Media Covid Coverage Driving US Crazy

Two recent analytical studies together lead to the conclusion in the title of this post.  One is a working paper Why is All Covid 19 News Bad News? published at NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research).  The other is an article at Vox Anxiety and depression are following a remarkably similar curve to Covid-19 cases.  Excerpts are in italics with my bolds.

Malevolent Media Covid Coverage


We analyze the tone of COVID-19 related English-language news articles written since January 1, 2020. Ninety one percent of stories by U.S. major media outlets are negative in tone versus fifty four percent for non-U.S. major sources and sixty five percent for scientific journals. The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive scientific developments including school re-openings and vaccine trials. Media negativity is unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases or the political leanings of the audience. U.S. major media readers strongly prefer negative stories about COVID-19, and negative stories in general. 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.


Notes: Negativity is estimated using supervised machine learning on article phrases coupled with a training data set. Articles are manually downloaded from LexisNexis for the period January 1st, 2020 to July 31st, 2020. The red line shows the weekly average of daily confirmed new COVID-19 cases and is accessed from the New York Times website.

Figure 1 plots the time trend in media negativity for major media outlets in the U.S. (green line) and outside the U.S. (blue line) using the scale on the left. The most striking fact is that 91 percent of the U.S. stories are classified as negative whereas 54 percent of the non-U.S. stories are classified as negative. Figure 1 uses our estimated probability that an article is negative. We obtain similar results using the Hu-Liu dictionary and the fraction of words in the article that are negative.

Notes: Negativity is estimated as the fraction of negative words in the article and is standardized. Dark blue bars are for COVID related articles and light blue bars are for non-COVID related articles. The raw share of negative words is .043 with a standard deviation of .021. Negative words are defined by the Hu-Liu (1997) dictionary. Articles and transcripts are manually downloaded from LexisNexis for the period January 1st, 2020 to July 31st, 2020 and websites for Science, JAMA, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and Nature. The New York Times website is used for the list and text of the most popular articles.

US Mental Health Linked to Covid Case Reporting

From Vox article linked above:

It is well documented that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a serious toll on emotional well-being. Rates of depression and anxiety in June were three to four times higher than at the corresponding point in 2019, according to the CDC, and deteriorating mental health outcomes have been similarly observed in nations across the world, among them the UK, India, and China. Rates of suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and alcohol consumption are rising steadily.

But the connection is even stronger than you might think in the US: As the number of new cases of the virus fluctuates week to week, our mental health moves in lockstep.

Data available from the Mental Health Household Pulse Survey, run by the CDC, offers a week-by-week estimate of the fraction of Americans who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression between April 23 and July 21. Comparing this data to the weekly US coronavirus cases over the same time interval reveals an unmistakable trend: The incidence of depressive or anxious symptoms among Americans almost exactly mirrors the trajectory of the US coronavirus curve.

With an r2 value (a standard metric of correlation strength) of 0.92 between new Covid-19 cases and the incidence of anxious or depressive symptoms, the correlation between them is very, very strong.

It is always possible that any correlation could be coincidental rather than causal, or that the link could be more complicated than it seems. Indeed, June and July marked a period of increasing viral spread; one might speculate that, as the pandemic stretched on, public mental health could have correspondingly worsened simply as a function of time or some other factor.

Yet data from the second phase of the Household Pulse Survey, from August through October, showed mental health continued to consistently follow fluctuations in the Covid-19 curve. After the scary viral spike in July, the number of weekly cases declined from roughly 450,000 per week at the end of July to roughly 250,000 by the end of August. And along with this period of slower viral spread, mental health outcomes markedly improved as well, reinforcing the relationship between the two.

Then again, as cases increased during September and October, mental health outcomes correspondingly worsened.

Overall, the pandemic has raised America’s baseline levels of anxiety and depression: Even at its lowest point this summer (early May), the rate of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression hovered around 34 percent, roughly three times higher than the average of 11 percent reported in a parallel study between January and June 2019.

Fluctuations above this already-high baseline could plausibly be caused, at least in part, by the severity of the pandemic at a given point in time. For example, elevated rates of viral spread directly increase the likelihood that we or someone we know will become exposed and undergo a mentally straining period of quarantining waiting for symptoms — or self-isolation while battling the new illness itself. The state of the pandemic also often determines things like freedom of mobility through lockdown measures or their absence.

Historically, imposed quarantine has been shown to dramatically affect mental health. Moreover, the perceived trajectory of the pandemic has significant repercussions for the economy and unemployment, both of which have been shown to directly impact mental health.

My Comment: 

Early on everyone wondered: What’s different about this pandemic? Some observed: It’s the first pandemic with 24/7 cable news and rampant social media. Informal surveys show that many people have few or no family, friends or associates who have gotten sick, let alone seriously ill or died from Covid19.  What we do get is a deluge of scary messaging and official warnings and restrictions that are literally driving us crazy.  

Bottom Line:  You’re on your own to keep up your spirits and fend off fears and depression.  Take care of your immune system, especially vitamins C, D and Zinc, and make every day count.




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