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The News Has A Catastrophizing Problem
Not everything is World War III
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it felt as if we were all continually under an onslaught of bad news. First we got a full year of infections, deaths, misery, and failed government interventions filling newspapers and social media feeds. Then, in year two, the tide somewhat turned with the introduction of new vaccines that dramatically reduced the chances of severe disease and death (vaccines likely saved over 14 million lives in their first year, according to an estimate in The Lancet). Yet even in a post-vaccine world, news media found a way to pivot to fear-stoking—this time over virus variants.
The variants somewhat reduced the effectiveness of vaccines and made the virus more virulent, if not more dangerous. Delta and omicron were followed by a number of other, smaller variants that are still dangerous and require focus from public health officials. But news about variants helped fuel a cottage industry of pessimistic news stories announcing that whatever new variant that just now emerged will soon overwhelm the health system and cause societal collapse. A recent tweet by media reporter Tom Gara highlights the work of The Daily Beast’s David Axe, who apparently never met a Covid variant he didn’t believe was going to destroy us. This is a subcategory of health journalism that baselessly stokes anxiety among millions of Americans and leads to further conflict about mitigation measures.
A similar scenario to this pandemic-related fearmongering is happening with the war between Russia and Ukraine. At first, the negative stories were rooted in the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian army, and in Russia’s military successes as well. Western news sources reported harrowing stories about the Azovstal factory siege and the war crimes of Mariupol. Russian victory was seen as a world-historic tragedy, a villanous empire snuffing out a valiant group of freedom fighters. The stories helped drive the transfer of weapons and supplies from Western counties to Ukraine.
This redistribution of weaponry ended up working. Ukraine started to push Russia out of its territory. Russia’s war aims changed from a takeover of Kyiv to holding separatist regions in the east. Every week brought forth new stories of Ukrainian success or Russian incompetence. As a result, the purveyors of negative news shifted from Russian atrocities to the potential that Russia will use nuclear weapons against the Ukrainians and ignite armageddon. News sites began posting interviews with experts on Russia about the chances of nuclear war. Stories about what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded over an American city became popular.
This episode perfectly encapsulates how some sectors in the media, some news operations, some journalists, find themselves unable to process the world’s happenings apart from a pessimistic editorial frame.
The following is needlessly fear-inducing, and yet it’s the conclusion one would naturally draw from being exposed day in and day out to these sorts of news sources: Russian victory means that Ukraine is one step closer to despotism, while Ukrainian victory puts the world closer to being irradiated.
This deep-lying cynicism isn’t coming from a philosophically nihilistic place—no, the cynicism is at least partly a function of the financial and social incentives to being a fear-peddler. News outlets and journalists are likely not convinced that the BQ.1 variant will kill millions of Americans or that a loss of the Donbas will cause Russia to nuke New York. Instead, they’ve realized that doom and fear-mongering garner clicks and retweets more reliably than other approaches.
When these news sources use fear to pad their bottom lines, this has a dual impact on readers. In some instances, readers take predictions of doom more seriously than is healthy for them. Their approach to life takes on an air of anxiety and fear. The cable news talk shows and the social algorithms know what they’re doing—users simply cannot look away. The other thing it does to readers is convey that the standard frame for understanding world events is catastrophe and apocalypse. The problem is that it flattens our understanding of what should count as an ordeal of that magnitute and what should not—now it all gets counted.
The media needs to do a better job of resisting the allure of apocalyptic news scenarios. They have the tools of any other researcher: (a) access to scientific research, (b) sources from which to determine historical context, and (c) a capacity to weigh the issue’s relative importance today. Usually, these will incline a researcher away from the conclusion that the thing they happen to be reporting on is the most critically important moment in all of history.
This approach, if fully adopted by newsrooms, at least has a shot of somewhat rehabilitating the media’s status in people’s eyes. And, for publications, developing committed readers who register a higher-than-basement-level measure of trust in your journalistic integrity should be the overarching goal. My contention is that one way this is done is by media outlets steadfastly refusing to catastrophize in their coverage—unless of course the moment truly calls for it. I hope they heed this warning: The fate of literally everyone in existence hangs in the balance.