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For COVID News, Always Read Beyond the Scary Headline

A careful look reveals headlines typically report the scariest news.

Source: EUGENI_FOTO/Adobe Stock

Contributed by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.

To inform yourself about the coronavirus, you have probably sought out your favorite news sources. In doing so, you may have been overwhelmed (and perhaps terrified) by negative headlines, such as these:

"Britain’s national health authority issued a worrisome alert about children"

As global death toll tops 200,000, WHO warns there's no evidence of coronavirus immunity

"Tennessee restaurants reopen as state sees biggest 1-day jump In COVID-19 cases"

"52 who worked or voted in Wisconsin election have COVID-19"

Before you panic and run to spread the dire news, we at Evidence-Based Living have one firm piece of guidance for you: Always read beyond the headline.

That’s right. Read the article to the very end, and you will see that such blaring banner headlines are very often misleading and even sensationalist. They typically highlight the most negative aspect of the story. In many articles, the frightening “fact” in the headline is heavily qualified in the article itself, sometimes reducing the actual risk to close to zero.

We will take a look in a moment at what these articles actually say. But first let’s ask: Why do the media use the headline to instill head-turning fear – even if the topic isn’t very frightening? Psychologists have a good explanation. They have long identified a “negativity bias” in humans. A vast body of research shows that ‘‘bad is stronger than good,” with negative stimuli more strongly affecting perception, decision-making, and many other areas.

This broad principle applies to the news, as well. A recent international study confirms “a human tendency to be more attentive to negative news content” and “to be more physiologically activated by negative than by positive news stories.”

The news media know this fact well, as exemplified in the old journalism maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And where better to take advantage of the negativity bias than in the headline? Research shows that negative headlines get much more attention than positive headlines, with click-through rates 63 percent higher on headlines with negative superlatives.

At Evidence-Based Living, we want you to get all the evidence before you freak out. And that means carefully reading any article to see if the headline was just there to scare you and get your attention.

Let’s take those four headlines we started with and see what in each case the article actually says.

  • A statement like: "Britain’s national health authority issued a worrisome alert about children," probably made you afraid for your kids and grandkids. But if you go to the article itself, you will learn that British health authorities say that for children, “serious complications related to the virus are very rare…” You would also read this reassuring news:

    "Doctors at prominent pediatric hospitals in U.S. hot zones from Seattle to New York said they had not observed alarming increases in the number of pediatric patients being hospitalized for COVID-19. Instead, physicians said they felt that increase correlated with a rise in cases in the general population, rather than an emerging threat to children."

  • You know that immunity after getting COVID-19 is important so that society can open up again. So you may have been shocked by that headline: “As global death toll tops 200,000, WHO warns there's no evidence of coronavirus immunity.”

    You will feel much better, though, when you read the article. There you will learn that: “most studies suggest that people who have recovered from the infection have antibodies to fight the virus,” and “most people who are infected with COVID-19 will develop antibody responses that will provide some level of protection.” That’s a lot less scary than the doomsday headline, but would have gotten fewer clicks.

  • There are headlines every day along the lines of this one: “Tennessee Restaurants Reopen As State Sees Biggest 1-Day Jump In COVID-19 Cases." Many media sources shout out how many new cases there are. However, if you read the article, you will quickly find: “State officials say the spike in confirmed cases is due primarily to an increase in testing.” Rather than a scary thing, that’s a good thing – it means needed testing is expanding, not that there is a vast source of new cases. Again, you needed to read beyond the headline.
  • By now, you will be used to the vast discrepancy between COVID-19 headlines and what the story actually reports. However, few are as clear as this one: "52 who worked or voted in Wisconsin election have COVID-19." You would logically assume that doing their civic duty caused them to become ill. But when you read the article, you find this statement: “It remains unclear how many — if any — of those people contracted the virus at the polls.” That’s right: there’s no evidence at all that their infections came from showing up to vote, despite what the headline strongly suggests.

The bottom line: many media outlets use negative headlines to get your attention, even if what’s being reported is much more neutral. Don’t let that negative headline create a smokescreen that keeps you from uncovering the real story behind the fear factor.

For you Twitter users: We’ve created #misleadingcovidheadline. If you find one, tweet it with that hashtag!

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work.