#17: Hyperbolic News Gets Plenty of Views

When fear becomes more contagious than the virus


Today's piece is a bit above my pay grade. It steps outside my "ethics in tech" safe-space, and explores the importance of responsible journalism in the digital age.


Reading time: 3 minutes

"We live in a world of vexatious verticals, of crass clickbait, of polarised perspectives and fallacious, fact-free feeds."

Robert Thomson, CEO of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp

New contagious diseases are scary. They frighten us because they are unknown and unpredictable. Human beings are hard-wired to instinctively respond to such threats, by protecting ourselves. 

And when we feel we can't, we panic.

When reporting on such issues as a new contagious disease, the news media's choice of narrative framework, dramatically shapes people's behaviour.

It can choose to frighten or inform, dramatise or rationalise. 

With such power to shape our behaviour, it has a duty to act responsibly. Yet on the whole, it hasn't.

Sensationalism Sells

There's no law that insists every time the news media mention the word “virus”, they have to precede it with the word “deadly" or "killer.” 

So why do they use such subjective adjectives so often?

Because the news media is in the advertising business more than the truth business. And unfortunately, fear and outrage are most profitable.

Historically, the news has always been in a battle for attention. But when the news met the internet, this battle became more like a war. 

With so many new non-traditional competitors emerging - especially social media and YouTube - all competing for "ad dollars", the news media became ever more desperate. 

By flirting with hyperbole, it struggles to balance this with accuracy and measured reporting.

This is compounded by the fact the digital ecosystem, is itself built for virility - with the ability to rapidly spread emotional fear, far and wide.

24/ 7 news cycle

Even those outlets who strive for the highest journalistic standards create problems, because they too perpetuate the non-stop media cycle we are witnessing.

Of course, it's important for the public to be kept abreast of a rapidly changing situation. 

But as humans give more weight to events they can immediately recall (known as "availability bias" in psychology speak), the 24 hour news cycle (of which this article is ironically a part), places people in a unhealthy, hyper-vigilant state.

It means everything gets interpreted it in a threatening way.

Context is critical

Instead of feeling threatened, the news media could frame the Coronavirus story in a way that inclines people toward more measured behaviour.

For example, rather than treating it as a uniquely dangerous new threat, what if the Coronavirus was framed within the context of diseases already affecting humanity?

This would be immensely helpful because, the more familiar we are with a risk, the more likely we are to avoid panicking.

If it wasn't so dependent on "ad dollars", perhaps they would follow such a narrative of familiarity, rather than fear.

Here's how some headlines might look:

  1. Humans Lived For Millenia With Some Form Of Coronavirus

    1 billion cases of flu (a different virus) lead to between 291,000 and 646,000 fatalities worldwide each year. This is the norm for flu and is, to date, significantly lower than COVID-19.  

    As the flu is so familiar to us, the world doesn't come to a standstill with each passing flu season. We're prudent, not panicky. 

  2. It Could Be Much Worse

    Dengue is a virus common in more than 100 countries worldwide. 40% of the world’s population, about 3 billion people, live in areas with a risk of dengue. 400 million people get infected with dengue. Approximately 100 million people get sick from infection, and 22,000 die from it. 

    Compare that to the 120,000 worldwide cases of Coronavirus recorded so far.

  3. Most Survive Coronavirus

    Many people who are exposed to Coronavirus will have mild symptoms and some people might show no symptoms at all. 

When fear takes over

The Coronavirus is of course a concern. Thousands of people have been infected, some of whom have died. Numbers increase daily. No vaccine yet exists.

But there is nonetheless, a profound asymmetry in coverage, and this creates fear.

When fear takes over, "It hijacks our imaginations and discards facts". It makes us irrational and it causes us to panic - to circulate rumours online, hoard vital goods and falsely blame others for the outbreak.

But with so many dangers in the world, it’s important to put things into perspective.

So, if you find yourself feeling afraid, pick your news sources carefully and limit yourself to checking them too often.  Educate yourself by finding the facts beyond the headlines. And beyond that, take sensible precautions and get on with your life as best as circumstances allow.

Thank you!

An archive of my writing can be found on my website. Click here if interested.

Looking forward to hearing from you.