When news consumption becomes a concern for public health

By Dennis Archambault

Good communication is like pharmacokinetic dosing: the right drug at the right dosage, considering the receptivity of the patient – and adjusting appropriately.

The news media doesn’t have time to be concerned about communication effects – well, most of the time. They need to get their depiction of news out in a timely fashion before their competitors. They intend to provide a public service and make money, at least the for-profit model. Non-profit journalism increasingly is assuming a greater share of the media pie. Kaiser Health News is an example. Sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, its purpose is to provide thorough, non-sensational coverage of health news for consumer audiences.

Today, The Detroit News published an interesting article that analyzes news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic: “Are we gluttons for punishment? New study shows bias for bad news about COVID-19” The article seems to imply that readers may be gluttons for bad news – as they may be. But the news media itself news that bad news sells and has an insatiable appetite for that.

Ben Wattenberg wrote a seminal book, The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong, at a time when communication effects and news media audits were becoming research projects for academics. Essentially, the title says it all. The subject, tone, and frequency of news coverage of topics tend to result in misunderstanding the facts – even when the reportage is generally accurate. It comes down to what aspect of the topic is reported, the tone of the reportage, its frequency, etc. For example, at the time – the 1980s – public opinion held that America was losing the war on cancer. Wattenburg’s analysis deconstructed “cancer” as many different categories of disease with different challenges. He found that in most cases, the scientific and consumer knowledge base had grown, diagnostic procedures had been established, early treatments were showing promise, and palliative care improving. While a “cure” was elusive at the time, considerable progress had occurred.

Cynthia M. Allen, writer of The Detroit News commentary noted that “promising new treatments, breakthroughs in vaccine development and studies that showed viral spread in schools really wasn’t happening, were all jettisoned for the most apocalyptic public health predictions, many of which – to this day – have not come to fruition.” Citing a Dartmouth College study, she wrote that “national U.S. publications and networks produced dramatically more negative coverage than international, regional and scientific news sources… Is it any wonder that the CDC actually suggested Americans reduce news consumption as a means of coping with increasing stress, anxiety, and depression during the pandemic?”

Indeed, “information anxiety” is a concern during a crisis, especially with our current exposure to multiple information platforms at any time. It’s interesting that current public opinion research is showing that those undecided about the coronavirus vaccine education, not just news information, or celebrity endorsements.

Communication researchers have a lot to work within analyzing the coronavirus pandemic, from the revelation of initial advice to the politicization of masking, all the way to combatting misinformation in promoting vaccine use. While they study it, we will continue in our efforts to titrate the information we share with our constituents, to get the right information out at the right time in the right quantity.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health