August 6, 2021 - 12:32pm

A measured Covid headline

If there’s one thing media reporting over the last 18 months has taught us, it’s that when it comes to Covid, no headline is too sensational, and no prediction too dire. Glance over the Twitter feeds or websites of most newspapers, and it is hard not to sometimes wonder if the Armageddon is upon us.

This sort of medical alarmism is, of course, not new. Most remember the Daily Mail’s countless articles containing a seemingly endless list of things which may, possibly, cause cancer (some highlights:  flip flops, crisps, Facebook, being left- handed, shaving your armpits, soup, being a woman, being a man, grapefruit, and lipstick). Covid, however, has taken the fear-mongering to new heights, with a constant parade of terrifying new variants and “harrowing questions” about the effects of such mutations, intermingled with misplaced fears about vaccine resistance.

Just last week, the White House had to correct a NYT journalist on Twitter over misleading claims about the rates of infectiousness among vaccinated people. But more worrying still is that this kind of relentless alarmism in the media is going unchecked. Earlier this week, for example, The Guardian mysteriously corrected a positive story about Long Covid in children in order to add a more negative slant after it published the story.

Why is this happening? Most obviously, fear-mongering is good for traffic. But this kind of coverage may also be a reflection of many reporters’ own anxieties surrounding the pandemic. Many of those working in the media have been working from home, shielded from the worst of Covid, and fear a lifting of restrictions. Writing primarily for liberal, knowledge worker audiences cocooned in their homes, readers probably share similar anxieties too.

In turn, this media-instilled pessimism is spreading throughout the population. According to one survey, 54% of Americans said that, for the first time since February, they believed the worst of the pandemic was yet to come. Now, a majority of Americans are pessimistic about the future of the pandemic.

Despite the proven efficacy of vaccines, which significantly reduce the risk of severe illness and death against all current variants (yes, including the new variant of the week, lambda, for which there is early promising data), fear is growing. The danger is that this will turn into fatalism, leading to more vaccine hesitancy. What’s more, if we keep crying wolf about the next dangerous variant, it will deaden the public response should a significant crisis actually emerge.

We risk being caught in a feedback loop where more and more pessimism results in gloomier and gloomier reporting, which in turn dampens public morale. The media has a responsibility to report on Covid honestly and fairly, without the sensationalism and alarmism, even if it means fewer page clicks.

Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics.