Misperceptions of COVID Risk and the Media

by | Nov 2, 2020

Ron Cogswell – Flickr

Despite the blistering pace of the 24-hour news cycle, COVID-19 has dominated headlines since the beginning of 2020 and will continue to for the foreseeable future. But for all the time we’ve spent watching and reading pandemic media, we still don’t have an accurate perception of the risk we face from COVID-19.

I am not talking about a slight misperception. People surveyed are spectacularly wrong, despite, or because of, wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. 

Here are the stats. Among those surveyed by Gallup, on average respondents thought that just under 58 percent of COVID-19 deaths were people aged 55 and up. In reality, 92 percent of deaths fall in that age range. At the same time, they overestimate the risk for young people. Respondents believed that 8 percent of deaths were people 24 years old and under, when only 0.2 percent were.

To put that in perspective, they believed that young people accounted for 50 times their true proportion of deaths. 

The view of health consequences tells a similar story. Among young people between 18 and 24, 59 percent are worried about serious long-term health consequences. But they account for only 0.1 percent of deaths. We only have a few months of data on COVID-19, so understanding the long-term effects is difficult, but the CDC notes that severe cases follow the same age distribution as deaths. This means that young people, who are a small percentage of the severe cases that would cause long term effects, face very little long-term danger from COVID-19.

There is much we don’t know about COVID-19, but one of the few things we do know for certain is that the risk of death is closely tied to age and comorbidities. For most of the public, even this fact escapes them.

So, what’s causing this divide between our perceptions and reality?

A major factor is how the media functions and how we consume news. For instance, shark attacks make headlines. They play on our fears and result in tragedy and death. These fears run so deep that we’ve had four Jaws and six Sharknado movies. But most days we’re spared from shark attacks. The commonplace isn’t newsworthy, so we don’t hear news reports about another day safe from sharks.

If my beloved New York Giants lose again, that’s not newsworthy; it’s expected. But if they do the impossible and pull out a fourth-quarter comeback victory? That’s rare and miraculous, thus newsworthy.

This focus on rare, deadly events does affect how we view the world and the risks that we face. Airplane crashes become huge stories. Even though people are more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash, the fear of flying is common while the fear of driving even sounds odd to type.

Back in the days of shoulder pads, perms, and one-hit wonders, Neil Postman wrote about how the medium of television and the rise of cable news was changing the way we viewed the news. The content of news must change to fit the medium through which it is delivered. Cable news competes for viewers with other TV programs forcing them to provide some level of entertainment to retain viewers. Flashy graphics, attractive anchors, correspondents in exciting or dangerous locations all serve to provide entertainment and keep our attention, rather than improving the information we glean from our viewing. This has expanded to traditional print media outlets with an online presence, as they increasingly focus online and compete with other websites for clicks and retweets.

Postman cites former news co-anchor Robert MacNeil describing the features of successful news programs. According to MacNeil:

Keep everything brief, do not strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement… Bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.

Combined, these do not lead to a greater understanding of a topic. They lead to a superficial understanding that convinces us that we are well-informed.

There is an old saying that in the news industry, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Stories that shock and sadden us get more attention from viewers, and more coverage. Here is a selection of COVID-19 stories. Young mother and healthcare worker dies of COVID-19. Previously healthy athletes struggle with complications after recovering from COVID-19. Massive outbreaks occur on college campuses. Outbreaks at colleges cause fear, even though very few need hospitalizations.

Focusing on stories that are unrepresentative and scary may draw in viewers and hold their attention, but it makes it more difficult for us to find accurate information.

Not to sound like Josh Hawley, but social media compounds these problems. As we all know, there is even less room in our social media feed for substantive discussion. Clap-backs get retweets, not nuanced discussions. Fear and anger drive retweets and shares on social media. Tragic stories about young healthy people dying go viral, as do the most pessimistic predictions.

According to the Gallup poll mentioned earlier, those who used social media to find information about COVID-19 had the most inaccurate estimation about the dangers posed to young people. Because the worst news and most dire predictions get the most attention, any perception you get from social media is going to be distorted. 

It is easy to get swept up in sensationalized coverage and seeing your Twitter feed filled with the most tragic stories. But an anecdote is a data point of one. These stories are often selected because of their rarity, not because of their constant occurrence.

How we view risk has a far-reaching effect on not only our own lives; they also shape public policy. A society filled with misinformed voters will push for policy responses poorly designed to meet the actual threat, causing other problems in the process. When our sources of news are also entertainment, the threat of inaccuracies proliferating is greater.

This tendency is something we need to keep in mind when we view news, to help us avoid being swept up by the worst stories of tragedy and doom.

Reprinted with permission from the Independent Institute.