Such balmy words he pour’d, but all in vain:Aeneid, Book XII, by Virgil
The proffer’d med’cine but provok’d the pain.
I sent for Ratcliffe, was so ill,The Remedy Worse than the Disease, by Matthew Prior (1664-1721)
That other doctors gave me over,
He felt my pulse, prescribed his pill,
And I was likely to recover.
But when the wit began to wheeze,
And wine had warm’d the politician,
Cured yesterday of my disease,
I died last night of my physician.
And of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth – the critic.History of the World, Part I (1981)
The idea of a cure worse than the disease it is meant to remedy is old. Old enough and resilient enough that it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it a meme. It is one of those perfunctory Latin idioms: Aegrescit medendo. It finds its way into poor-to-mediocre English poetry and brilliant Mel Brooks comedies, too.
Now, with all this talk of cures and diseases, you might think this is going to be a brief about 2019-nCov, the Wuhan Coronavirus. It isn’t. It is a brief about the news and narrative that emerged in response to the Wuhan Coronavirus.
I’d like to show you what I mean.
This new strain has been out there since December at least, both in the wild and in media. It was initially described in media accounts as a mysterious series of hospitalizations for pneumonia-like symptoms; that is, until December 31st, when the WHO formally acknowledged it. By early January, some coverage embraced the novel coronavirus nomenclature. Even then, it was not yet seen as newsworthy in the US. The coverage in the first week of 2020 was very limited, and what existed was mostly framed in context of the WHO response. Bloomberg was among the first to give it a full article’s treatment. They published this on January 4th:
Coverage in US media increased in the second week of 2020 in tandem with the first announced deaths linked to the virus. Still, most of the coverage could be found in medical blogs and light journals. Other outlets published an initial piece or two and moved on. The New York Times and CNN explored it first on January 8th. Washington Post on January 9th. It wasn’t really until the third week of 2020 that the news became more dire. That is when coverage of nCov in the US went mainstream, with more than a thousand articles published that week alone.
It was the following week, however, when coronavirus coverage exploded. US media published more than 15,000 new articles between the 22nd and 28th of January, a 700%+ increase over the week prior. Coverage rose a bit more between January 29th and February 4th, but it was already at roughly the maximum level we see in US media for any extraordinary “event” coverage.
The chart below presents that series in the darker-colored line, with corresponding values on the left axis. The other series – in light blue and plotted on the right axis – presents a subset of this coverage. This is the percentage of that universe of articles which used language advising readers that they should be more worried or concerned about the plain old seasonal flu. This is a percentage. The frequency of these articles didn’t just increase along with coronavirus coverage – it increased at a markedly faster rate than the coverage alone.
You might also note that the acceleration in this subset of coverage took place the week after the acceleration in coronavirus articles. More on that in a moment.
Number of Coronavirus Articles Published in US Media vs. Share of “Worry More About the Flu” Articles
In context of all the coronavirus coverage, the above may not seem like a massive share; however, the above series reflects a simple query that almost certainly misses all sorts of other ways articles chose to phrase similar admonitions. To that end, we also explored the linguistic similarity of all US coronavirus coverage the week of January 29th through this morning – February 4th. What we found was that the single most interconnected, most central cluster in the network graph of articles (in our parlance, the “highest attention” cluster) was a cluster defined by various comparisons of coronavirus to the flu and the common cold, especially by relating counting statistics of historical mortality. You can see this as the highlighted pink cluster below.
Why does this matter?
Because as of February 4th, we believe the most cohesive, most aggressively promoted narrative of 2019-nCov in US media is “Don’t worry about this. You should worry more about the cold and the flu.”
I am not a medical researcher. I don’t have the foggiest idea how widely this disease will spread or how many or how few people will end up succumbing to it. I don’t have an estimate for how much fear and quarantines will impact Chinese production, global trade or the global supply chain. I certainly don’t know what kind of drag that will put on Q1 global GDP. I don’t care. OK, of course I care, but I certainly don’t have an edge in predicting any of it, I rather suspect very few others do, and in any case none of that matters to the point I am trying to make.
What I can tell you is that in the last week, many media outlets decided in the wake of an explosion in coverage from the prior week that you and I did not interpret their articles about coronavirus correctly. They decided that you and I needed to be told how to think and how to feel about what the facts presented in those stories meant, and they told us to think that coronavirus was not as big of a deal as we thought it was after reading last week’s news. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It doesn’t mean their predictions don’t reflect some central expectation that may end up proving to be true.
But missionary behavior is still missionary behavior, and this behavior tends to follow a predictable pattern.
After a surprising event of global significance, initial media coverage is typically dominated by the reporting of facts, such as they are known. Within 1-2 weeks, the response shifts. Reporting of available facts transitions to attempts to manage, shape and direct the common knowledge that emerged from our collective interpretation of those facts.
Narrative is the inevitable afterbirth of news – especially big news.
Right or wrong, it’s happening again. Clear eyes.