Kareem Shaheen: The liberal media's disaster-porn problem

The pandemic is terrible and serious. But the legacy media might have actually made things worse

By: Kareem Shaheen

I clearly remember the last time I cancelled my Washington Post subscription. It was a couple of months after the pandemic sparked lockdowns all over the world, and my wife and I were doomscrolling on social media before bed, too exhausted to do anything else after another 16-hour day of alternating work and baby shifts, with full-time contract jobs and no childcare.

She showed me an Instagram post with an ominous black background, the headline declaring: “Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine.” It made me angry, and I went to bed. The next morning, I googled and read the article, which was heavy on the speculation that was so common in those days of how the pandemic was going to “Change Everything” (meat packing robots! No more handshakes!) and pretty light on evidence, especially about the potential role of vaccines, which was relegated to the end. It was classic sensationalism. I unsubscribed. When I posted about the story on social media, it was met with derision because articles by science reporters quoting experts were akin to holy scripture.

I went on an unsubscribing spree, mostly of liberal-leaning publications whose sensationalism and death spiral coverage was getting to me. My career so far was spent working with liberal publications, and I consider myself a liberal personally. I’m also a power user of paywalled media outlets, maintaining probably a dozen subscriptions at a time to a variety of international and local newspapers, independent Arab media, Canadian and international magazines, digital publications, Substack newsletters and novelty or issue-based outlets. But rather than seek solace and understanding in newspapers, I unsubscribed from most of them. I subscribed to a couple of sober, centrist outlets instead.

It felt like the difference between being told you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness by a hysterical family member clawing at his face, or by a calm doctor laying out your options for treatment and survival.

Last week, the New York Times published an interesting mea culpa in its morning briefing newsletter, which is written by the excellent David Leonhardt. Titled “Bad News Bias,” the piece described the findings of a study published by the American National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the major national news outlets in the country were overwhelmingly negative in their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

This makes sense at first glance, given the fact that the pandemic is an awful thing that wrought death and sickness around the world. But in reality U.S. media is an outlier compared to other media outlets around the world, and even scientific journal articles about the virus.

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Overall, around 87 per cent of COVID-19 coverage in the big national U.S. networks and newspapers was negative, compared to 51 per cent in international media, and 64 per cent in scientific journals. This manifested itself in the stubborn and persistent predictions of absolute doom that you may be familiar with if your media diet, as mine did, primarily consisted of reading or watching liberal-leaning outlets (though the study finds Fox News was also guilty of this). It wasn’t just me then after all, I thought.

The fixation on disaster porn was evident in what the news stories chose to emphasize on any given day. Of course, these big outlets were not publishing falsehoods, but when infections were rising, the media breathlessly reported on worst-case scenarios. When they were falling, they focused on places where they were rising. And when vaccines emerged on the scene, coverage of this game-changing human achievement was muted. Those of us who consume the deluge of newsletters and alternative media formats of news outlets will have also noticed this trend, at least anecdotally, on those platforms, where parenting and family, for example, is now exclusively seen through the prism of constant mental breakdowns as a result of the pressures of the pandemic. I often identify with the stories, but I somehow always feel worse after the commiseration, pre-emptively drained of the energy I had to power through a couple of hours of night-time work catch-up.

In recent weeks, as vaccinations have ramped up across the U.S., there has been a growing sense that hope and optimism are powerful public-health tools as well, laced with some contrition, if not self-reflection, in editorial commentary by media outlets. In a recent column in The Atlantic on mistakes we keep making in the pandemic, the respected sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argued that pessimism was a threat to the fight against the virus and was empowering anti-vaxxers.

“There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion — distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead,” she said. “This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic.”

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I am only an individual, obviously, and my reaction to the way liberal media covered the pandemic may well be a minority opinion. It also is not meant to minimize the suffering caused by this blight in any way. But I do find myself, a year later, more disappointed than angry.  It is precisely in moments of panic that I look to newspapers for sober analysis and risk calculation and explanation and, dare I say, reassurance about the world. Apparently, a lot of people felt that way also, because a lot of outlets saw an increase in digital subscribers. Good, fact-based journalism will always be essential. And yet this trafficking in disaster porn was absolutely relentless and permeated everything.

Whatever the reason, this disaster porn seems to me to mark the clickbait equivalent of right-wing media's veiled and outright racism and hate speech. Over the past few years, I’ve worked both with Western media outlets and new, independent Arab media, so I’ve become intimately familiar with the challenges of navigating the ever-changing algorithms of social media in pursuit of higher reach and readership. It is self-evident, from the polarizing experience of the last four years, that these algorithms are a menace to society, amplifying hate speech and discord because they spark maximum user engagement, the health of the populace be damned.

But it is also becoming clear that the weaponization of these platforms is not the sole province of the right wing. Perhaps liberal media’s mistakes come from a better place, one where they erred on the side of freaking people out to express the unprecedented nature of the crisis. But the longer it goes on, amplifying doomsday scenarios without the context, downplaying the real hope and advancement that vaccines represent, losing themselves in needless fretting over vaccine efficacy rates and stirring more resignation and panic in the public, only prolongs the crisis and gives people reason to want out of any public-health measures. With no light at the end of the tunnel, why keep going?

In the newsletter, Leonhardt acknowledges that the findings ought to spark some self-reflection in the media. I don’t know how likely that is, with media outlets increasingly focused on telling stories through grand narratives instead of grounding them in shared reality, reflecting the anxieties of their subscriber base, a specific class of Western consumer. 


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