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News Consumerism in the shadow of COVID-19

Story by Nick Choy


What should we consider as we see news reports of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic?

As local and regional municipalities employ their emergency response plans following rising statistics on domestic U.S. COVID-19 (novel Coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2) infections, so too follows the increase in hyper-vigilance and overreaction by members of the public—no doubt driven by sensational news stories and speculation appearing in popular mainstream and online media.

Just like any breaking news story heavy with data and information, consumers need to chose their news sources wisely, invest time to do their own research, and seek reputable spokespersons. The biggest problem facing most news consumers is information oversaturation—too much data coming at you from multiple angles—some of it conflicting.

“If you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.”

What to do?

We here at PathFinderEX take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously. We understand the importance of finding accurate information, which allows emergency planners to better prepare for dynamic situations such as the one we see developing today. As someone who has worked with, for and around mainstream media for most of my career, I insist on a five simple rules when considering news sources.

Become a Skeptic

If you went in for a routine checkup at your doctor, with no pre-existing medical issues, and he said you had six months left to live, wouldn’t you want a second opinion? Treat news agencies the same way. If a media outlet reports on something a certain way, get a second, or third take on the same subject. While you do this, make sure you have a good “mix” of news sources and opinion-editorial based stories.

I recommend two or three U.S.-based news sources, and several international news agencies become your go-to newsfeed. The reason for this is with shrinking newsroom budgets, most news agencies rely on media pools such as Reuters and Associated Press as their source, with little independent corroboration or verification. Bottom line: the wider media net you cast, the more diversified (and henceforth more accurate) your information becomes.

Think Critically

A lot of information in mainstream media leans toward sensationalism in order to increase viewership, increase advertising revenue and to compete against rival news organizations. It therefore behooves news consumers to do their own research, gather their own data, and come to their own educated conclusions.

The problem, according to Dr. Joseph Pierre, a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is based on a shift of commercial news from being “objective and dull” to “subjective and entertaining”.

In a 2017 article published in Psychology Today, entitled “Psychology, Gullibility, and the Business of Fake News”, Dr. Pierre posits that media revenues have shifted over the past 30 years to be driven primarily by online advertising, geared toward attracting viewer’s “clicks”. The focus is now “off-the-cuff opinions replacing the old-fashioned concept of reporting,” making it difficult for consumers to determine what is reliable news versus opinion.

Further complicating these issues is the phenomenon of Confirmation Bias—the tendency to seek out information that closely mirrors our own internal belief system, and what Dr. Pierre calls online search engine “filter bubbles” that confine us to “echo chambers” with a limited worldview. He continues, “With these algorithms presenting us with a biased selection of the news tailored to our preferences, our brains are consuming information with ‘confirmation bias on steroids.’”

Don’t Believe the Hype

News agencies are interested in one thing, and one thing only: ratings. Seeking the truth is secondary compared to shareholder return, which is tied directly to ratings numbers. If you doubt this, go to any grocery store or nearby Costco, especially on a weekend and you’ll see long lines, empty shelves and harried customers preparing for what appears to be a massive impending hurricane.

This is a textbook example of misinformation being re-interpreted by news agencies and pushed out to the public with little analysis or confirmation. If you want to see for yourself how crazy things are, type in this phrase in your Google search window: “public freak out over COVID-19”. You’ll find multiple pages of news reports, blog posts, and social media pages. The key phrase here is “public freak out”. Is it necessary? Absolutely not! published a compelling blog post on Jan. 29 entitled “Why we panic about coronavirus but not the flu”. In it, author and healthcare business reporter Bob Herman posits that in spite of widespread panic in the U.S. about the coronavirus, influenza vaccination rates continue to remain low. He opens with, “If you’re freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards.” (To see my deep dive on a comparison between rates of influenza and COVID-19, read the section on “Do Your own Math” toward the end of this article).

Actions such as binge-buying, or stocking up on emergency supplies do give consumers a sense of control in what appears to be an “out of control” situation, and bring some amount of comfort where there appears to be a lack thereof. During situations such as these, members of the public look to the government for providing calming reassurance, and accurate information. An important hallmark of effective Public Affairs—gaining public trust and support—builds a critical foundation for all subsequent messaging disseminated by any organization or agency.

Listen to “Real” Experts

Ever notice how many times reporters interview other reporters on their team? These “so-called” experts carry the titles “Medical Correspondent” or “Military Liaison”. But if you listen carefully, and most important—critically, to what they say, you’ll find a lot of speculation or guesswork.

Phrases like “I think” or “I feel” are used copiously by these sources—mostly because they themselves don’t really know. As we touched upon earlier, this homogenization of sources has a lot to do with shrinking news budgets, but in part, there is a tendency for news directors to “short cut” the process of acquiring data. Is it sometimes cheaper and easier to have an “in-house expert” on retainer rather than to reach out to actual experts in the field. The best sources for critical data are policy-makers, governing bodies, subject matter experts, regional and local departments of health, hospital directors, and emergency managers.

Author W. James Potter discusses information processing and critical thinking skills in his book Media Literacy. He says some people are better than others at performing information processing tasks, and are therefore more “media literate” than others. He advises that increasing one’s level and awareness of media literacy requires a “strong personal locus, awareness of one’s personal goals and needs” and the ability to then “exert the drive energy to take control of our own [internal] meanings.”