Last month, a swimmer in Maine was killed by a shark. This tragic event was widely reported by local and national media. It was news. But the fact that there are hardly ever shark attacks in the United States is not news, because we expect most days to pass without shark-related fatalities.
Researchers have documented our preference for the unexpected, exploring how information that is “surprising” provides greater entertainment and attracts more attention. Often this is benign: A basketball game that ends in a stunning upset, for instance, gets more coverage than a routine blowout. When it comes to covid-19, however, this preference — and the media’s tendency to indulge it — presents a real danger. It warps our thinking about the pandemic and may be leading us toward irrational decisions that can cause lasting harm.
The problem is that reporting on covid-19 tends to follow the shark-attack example. We’re unaccustomed to what the virus has wrought — hospitals overwhelmed, celebrities and world leaders suffering near-death experiences in the public eye. These “surprises” are what the media focuses on. The challenge with the novel coronavirus, however, is exactly that: It’s completely novel. Nothing about it should be expected. All of the ways it behaves — and doesn’t behave — are new. In that sense, a nursing home with zero infections should be just as newsworthy as a nursing home with several.
Because of the overwhelming bias in what gets reported about covid-19, the public lacks essential context for making reasoned, well-informed decisions.