“Read beyond the headlines for COVID-19”

Don’t get trapped by the scary headlines regarding the ongoing pandemic

Since almost the entire world is affected by the novel pandemic called COVID-19, everyone is hooked on the news channels, news-related websites and social media platforms to keep themselves informed with the latest updates about the virus. Almost similar kind of headlines are being aired on the news channels throughout the day, however, people still prefer to watch the headlines after every hour to keep themselves updated regarding the pandemic situation. A competition-like situation can also be seen between the news channels and websites to attract and engage maximum number of audience and, in doing so, they are using all kinds of news reporting tactics to sensationalize their news for the audience to stay tuned. Let’s take a look on some of the sensational and scary headlines regarding COVID-19 that were actually meant to engage the audience but the real story beyond the headlines depicted a different picture altogether.

One website of a local news channel shared a headline with the title “Doctors were prepared to announce my death, says Boris Johnson”. This headline is clearly depicting a seriousness of a situation. Any reader can immediately click on the news link to know if everything is fine with the UK prime minister who was recently diagnose with COVID-19. But if you read the whole story, you will come to know that he was recovered and was sharing his experiences of the illness and its treatment in a press conference where he said this particular statement. The headline should have been reported in a way in which his recovery from the illness must be highlighted. And in this way, the same news could have been reported in a way that can bring some hope to the readers that people are recovering from this viral infection too, but only the disturbing statement was picked up and highlighted to sensationalize the news to create panic in the public.

Another local news-related social media platform reported the news with the title “First lady diagnosed with COVID-19”. Any layman in Pakistan can instantly click the news link to check if the “first lady” being mentioned means the first lady of Pakistan. But when you read the complete story, you will come to know that it was the first lady of Canada who was diagnosed with COVID-19. This kind of news tactic is usually used to engage the local audience of Pakistan who can be more interested in the news related to the people living in Pakistan. If they would have mentioned the complete story in the headline that it was the first lady of Canada who was diagnosed with the viral infection, there are chances that some of the readers might not click on the news link as not everyone in Pakistan necessarily seems to be interested in what is happening in Canada.

A common trend in news reporting in the time of pandemic is the counting of the new confirmed cases on daily basis. Every day the toll keeps on rising and the media sources usually make it the first headline of every news bulletin, they also add scary background music while reporting it and make it even scarier. Nothing engages the audience more than this kind of news reporting. People have become obsessed with the number of new cases that it has become the first thing they want to know every day they wake up. This can be the disastrous way to start your day and it’s a clear-cut source of keeping you in panic state throughout the day. Such kind of scary news can be so discouraging that anyone can remain dysfunctional and unable to do or think anything other than constantly worrying about the pandemic and the increased chances of getting infected with it. However, the other side of this news reveals that the spike in confirmed cases is also due to an increase in testing which actually indicates that the testing is expanding and the government is actively keeping a check and taking steps in testing the virus and its management. There are still some countries where no positive cases are being reported just because there are no COVID-19 tests being done which is showing negligence on the part of their governments.

If, from today, the news media starts counting the number of affected or death cases due to road accidents, smoking-related health complications, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, heart attacks, or diabetes-related complications; a huge amount of panic will be created regarding such over-prevalent yet under-reported issues too. Numbers and statistics are always scary yet everyone is interested to know about the statistical facts too. And the media sources know this phenomenon quite well and they use this tactic while reporting the news for the ratings.

A lot of news reporting tactics can be identified in the sequence of the headlines. It is usually the number of confirmed cases and deaths that are mentioned first in the headline and the number of recovering cases is mentioned later on. In Pakistan, the death rate of the people diagnosed with COVID-19 is much lesser than the recovery rate yet the news channels still highlight the number of deaths more often than the number of recovering patients in order to sensationalize the news.

The question arises here is that why does such kind of scary headlines get more hype, maximum number of clicks and ratings at the first place. The answer to it is, as the psychologists have named it, the “Negativity bias”. It is a psychological phenomenon which explains that the events, things or statements that are negative in nature leave a greater impact on one’s psyche as compared to the positive or neutral ones. Negativity bias is a human tendency to not only register negative events more quickly but also to dwell on such negative events. This is a reason why first negative impressions are so difficult for the people to overcome and why traumatic events can have long lasting effects on one’s mind. Due to the negativity bias, people tend to notice negative things in the environment and later remember them more vividly as compared to the positive or neutral ones.

This phenomenon clearly explains why news with negative superlatives draws greater attention. Negative news tends to instantly sound more truthful and appear to have greater validity and this is why people tend to spread the negative news more readily and impulsively without confirming its authenticity as compared to the positive news. Several neuro-scientific studies have shown that the brain’s responses to negative sensory, motor or cognitive stimuli generate a much stronger response in the cerebral cortex than the positive or neutral information. Cerebral cortex is the area in the brain which is called the CEO of the brain and it is responsible for functions like decision making, planning, perception, and sustained attention. The news media understand this fact quite well. There is an old journalism proverb which says “If it bleeds, it leads”. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in the content of the headlines in the time of the current global pandemic. Research evidences have revealed that headlines with the negative superlatives get 63% higher click-through attention than the positive headlines. This is the reason why the news media uses the negative, disturbing or shocking words in the headlines even if the original information in the news is neutral in nature just to draw more attention of the audience.

Constantly hearing and reading headlines with such negative and disturbing content can actually take its toll on one’s mental, emotional and even physical health. It can affect one’s mental peace and can induce fear, hopelessness and even the physiological effects of anxiety, stress, and fatigue.

If you read the article to the very end before panicking then you will get to know that such frightening headlines are usually quite misleading. The media typically highlights the most negative aspect of the story and make it a headline; it is their job to report the news in a dramatic way; they do have to add some kind of suspense and sensationalism to the news otherwise the audience won’t sustain their attention or spend much time on the news channels or websites which can eventually affect their ratings.

It’s not that all the news being reported is false or fake, but one has to be careful about not to be trapped by the misleading titles of the news. So, one must get all the required authentic evidence before freaking out. It is also highly recommended to limit one’s time spent in watching the news channels and reading the articles with deadly headlines on the websites during the time of current pandemic.

It is essential to be updated about what is happening around the world but when it affects your mental health, then you should always prioritize about what is more important to you, the constant bombardment of sensational news or your mental peace, the choice is yours.

Written by Amna Nawaz (Clinical Psychologist)
    Thoughts: Dr. Sadaqat Ali