In a pandemic, the role of the news media is to communicate both the bad news (number of cases, deaths and restrictions) and the good news (people supporting one another, showing appreciation to frontline workers and decreases in cases) truthfully. The bad news is necessary for an informed and healthy population, and the good news is necessary for an encouraged and mentally healthy one.
Many people criticized the mainstream media for its negative coverage throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This is not without reason — a study conducted by Sacerdote, et al, found that 87% of stories published by major U.S. media outlets since Jan. 1, 2020 were negative in tone.
During the pandemic, like at any other point in time, the media conveyed information that aligned with news values — proximity, prominence, timeliness, impact, conflict and human interest. Unfortunately, during a pandemic, most events meeting those criteria were negative.
While good news was out there, such as falling numbers of cases in a state or stories of people coming together to support one another, bad news was much more timely, impactful and prominent. A story about an outbreak in a nursing home needed more attention than a story about a husband surprising his wife outside of the hospital with a date night.
Even though both the good news and the bad news are truthful, the information provided by the bad news was often of more significance to the readers.
For example, in 2020 CNN reported that 80% of Covid cases in March went undiagnosed. This information was negative and frightening to many readers. However, it is important because readers would then take feeling sick more seriously, even if they didn’t think they had Covid.
But the stories of good news are important too — they play a major role in keeping up the morale of the population. If the public thought everything was hopeless, no one would work to eradicate the virus.
Stories like the one mentioned above, about a husband surprising his wife outside the hospital with date nights, encourage the public and remind them of the beauty and resilience of humanity. People need to believe in the promises of the good news in order to bear the burdens of the bad news.
One thing must be true of both the good news and the bad news in order for them to work hand-in-hand to inform and uplift the public during a major crisis like a pandemic — they must be accurate.
Misinformation has higher stakes in a pandemic. To handle dangerous situations, people need accurate information. If they are misinformed, they may make decisions that harm themselves and others.
Throughout the pandemic, the media, those in charge of prominent organizations and the public threw out accusations of misinformation on a daily basis.
While the press and the media do not need to agree, they both need to communicate the truth. They may not agree on what actions should be taken on a piece of information; regardless, both are responsible for leading the general public in the direction of truth.