When I was in Journalism School at CU-Boulder, there was a continuing motto that our professors taught us: Dog bites man is not news; Man bites dog is news. That slogan was my mantra during the few years that I actually worked for a newspaper. Write what the people want to read; write the stuff that is interesting and worthy of going to the page 12 jump in the newspaper.
(If a teenager has accidentally stumbled on to a blog named Nanas Whimsies, they are now wondering two things: a) Why does and old person think their lives and thoughts are interesting enough to warrant a daily blog; and b) what in the hell is a newspaper.)
I miss newspapers. I loved getting to work in the morning, pouring myself a cup of fresh coffee (and it was fresh because I was always the first one at the office and I made it myself), and reading the Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky was a tabloid-styled newspaper. For a long time, Denver had a morning newspaper (the Rocky) and an evening newspaper (the Denver Post). I was sad when the Rocky folded, because I was fond of many of their reporters and I loved the tabloid style of the paper. I clipped many recipes from newspapers and followed many columnists who inspired me to write a blog (though they didn’t know about blogs in the days of newsprint). The Denver Post still exists, though they struggle in finding their place in this world of instant news.
Anyhoo, back to the fact that bad news sells newspapers. My sister Bec recently sent me an article she found in The New York Times — a newspaper that continues to do quite well despite our 24-hour news cycle. It was written by a columnist named David Leonhardt, and was titled Is Bad News the Only Kind?
The columnist cited Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor from Dartmouth College, who noticed last year that the news that he followed on television was different from what he read in professional journals. The news was always negative, while the scientists were reporting positive data about COVID. When COVID cases were rising, the media seemed twitterpated to report the increase. (By the way, the Dartmouth professor didn’t use the word twitterpated. That would be Bambi’s description.) When the numbers began dropping, the news media pointed to the places in which numbers were still rising. When it began looking like a vaccine was going to be available in the near future, the media talked about all of the possible negative side effects.
Sacerdote didn’t just present his thoughts as facts; he actually researched his hunch. He used some sort of fancy-dancy social science technique that classifies language as positive, negative, or neutral. Lo, and behold, he found out that his hunch was, indeed, correct.
I am not a brilliant social scientist, but I too noticed this negative bias when it came to reporting about COVID. I’m not suggesting that all of the stories should have been positive. It was a terrible time in our lives, and certainly while in the throes of our quarantine months, there wasn’t a lot of good things to say. We were all terrified, and would have distrusted any news that downplayed what was happening. Still, even then, they could have thrown us a bone now and again. Even a story about a dog biting a man would have been better than the constant flow of sadness.
While things are better today, I still notice that there is a lot of emphasis on the difficulties of getting the vaccine, side effects of the vaccines, or stories about people who don’t want to get the vaccine. While most people are still wearing masks despite the governor’s lifting of the mandate, we hear about the ones who aren’t. Yesterday’s headline was that it appears that COVID case numbers might be rising, but no context — are the people still as sick or are the symptoms mostly like those of the flu. I don’t know the answer to that.
I will continue to do what I have done for the past year or so — feed myself news very carefully.