While I don't agree with everything the host of HBO's "Real Time" said in a seven-minute segment, he did raise some good points about the pushing of "panic porn" to drive audience engagement.
Maher first cited a study by a professor at Dartmouth College that found news coverage of the pandemic was disproportionately negative in the U.S., compared with other countries. The study surveyed stories in publications including The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and New York Post, along with networks such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel.
Remarkably, the study didn’t find that the political leanings of their audiences had any bearing on the high level of negativity -- it was broadly universal among U.S. news outlets. I'm surprised by that, because I would have thought that left-leaning news outlets would want to play up the Trump administration's missteps in handling the pandemic to help drive him out of office.
Instead, profit motive may be the key reason that U.S. news is so negative, compared with other countries that have publicly owned news outlets, the study authors postulate. Those news sources include the BBC in the U.K., CBC in Canada and ABC in Australia. In other words, U.S. media outlets need to keep people hooked on "doom-scrolling" to drive revenue.
That theory deserves greater examination, especially since many marketers used keyword blocking to avoid placing their ads next to dismal pandemic news. Then again, with many publications more dependent on subscription revenue, the negative news may have helped to drive web traffic.
Researchers should also study how news coverage affected people's understanding of the pandemic. In his commentary, Maher cited a Franklin Templeton-Gallup study that found significant differences among Democrats and Republicans in their perceptions about the health crisis.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to overestimate the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients, which is about 1% to 5%. Only 10% of Democrats knew that, compared with 26% of Republicans.
Meanwhile, 41% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans incorrectly believed the hospitalization rate was more than 50% -- a level that would have overwhelmed hospitals during the pandemic. Another 28% of Democrats thought the hospitalization rate was 20% to 49%, according to the study.
“So, almost 70% of Democrats are wildly off on this key question, and also have a greatly exaggerated view of the danger of COVID, too, and the mortality rate among children," Maher said. "All of which explains why today, the states with the highest share of schools that are still closed are all blue states.”
There's more to the story. While there are significant differences among Trump and Biden voters in their support for reopening schools, both groups were influenced by news snippets provided to them by researchers. People who read an alarming article about the pandemic were less likely to support opening schools than people who read a clip from a medical journal that favored in-person schooling, the study found.
Of course, these panel results don’t completely reflect what people read in the real world. People who get their news primarily from social media tend to be the least informed. Readers with a mixed diet of liberal and conservative news were more likely than those who stuck to partisan news to have a better grasp of understanding health risks, according to Franklin Templeton-Gallup.
Maher's biting commentary highlights the need for more fact-based public debate about the pandemic and accurate information about the safety of vaccines. The news media can provide better reporting that helps people make informed decisions rather than appealing to their baser instincts with sensationalist news.