The Inevitable Afterbirth

Such balmy words he pour’d, but all in vain:
The proffer’d med’cine but provok’d the pain.

Aeneid, Book XII, by Virgil

I sent for Ratcliffe, was so ill,
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. 

The Remedy Worse than the Disease, by Matthew Prior (1664-1721)

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:

China Pneumonia Outbreak Spurs WHO Action as Mystery Lingers [Bloomberg]

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

Source: LexisNexis, Epsilon Theory

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.”

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

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.

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  1. What translation of the Aeneid is that?

    Also, the quotes at the beginning and the mention of “critics” reminded me of:

    “‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
    Appear in writing or in judging ill;
    But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ offence
    To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
    Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
    Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
    A fool might once himself alone expose,
    Now one in verse makes many more in prose.”

    • Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
  2. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    The Dryden (and Pope’s always amazing)

  3. Part of what’s going on is that within a couple of weeks after a typical newsworthy event, you kind of run out of new facts to talk about. Things still happen, but only in a slow dribble, not enough to sustain the business model. So coverage gets more and more recursive.
    This is the opportunity for Fiat News, the immune system of the status quo, to step in and restore equilibrium. But you know how when you die of the flu, it’s actually the immune response that kills you…

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yes, I think that’s right. I have a separate note in some degree of disarray on this topic more generally, but yes: narrative abhors a vacuum.

    Your second analogy is really clever and should have made its way into this note. Ah well!

  5. So, is the decision, after week one or two of coverage, to tell us how to think done by some behind-the-scenes cabal (if so who?) or is it, as it appears, more of a decentralized, instinctual media response, maybe even, with some good intent (but still wrong)?

    Also, just an fyi, but sometimes I have to log-on to ET two or three times to get it to “stick” as, sometimes (like today), the system keeps telling me to log-on even after my first and second log-on efforts (from a cloud held password - hence, I didn’t type it wrong).

  6. I think there’s a very difficult line to walk for journalists, and that line is in between Fiat News/Gell-Mann Amnesia-inducing stories/and sufficient context.

    For example, a friend of mine covers a state capitol - he generally TRIES to just print facts. But a lot of the time it is impossible to actually understand what’s going on given only “facts.”

    The example: The governor promotes a ban on vaping, he does this ostensibly to prevent the death of youngsters. The ACTUAL reason is that he wants to both undercut his more liberal rivals and to ensure campaign donations and support from certain anti-vaping lobbying groups. In addition, if he runs for President he can use his attempt to ban vaping (whether the bill passes or fails) as example of how he’s willing to use the power of the state to save the young ones. But just reporting the “facts” it’s difficult to convey the amoral political motives of such a move. So eventually the story becomes “Shady Governor Makes Power Move to Ban Vaping” to try and get readers to understand what’s actually going on, but which facts alone can’t prove or convey, most of the time.

    So I think sometimes narratives arise because journalists are trying to provide adequate context to a story as well.

    That was a bad example but, you know, I just made it up so…

  7. Avatar for rwgood rwgood says:

    It will be interesting to see if the narrative shifts to “well, maybe its not that deadly but it could wreck the Chinese economy” or the world economy for that matter. See Walter Russell Mead in WSJ “the Sick man of Asia”

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    We’re aware of the (odd) login issue and are working to resolve. Sorry.

    I don’t think there’s a cabal. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. I think well-meaning people with earnest beliefs, when surrounded by people who think the same things, begin to see matters of opinion as self-evident. There is an element of paternalism to it, sure, but I generally ascribe very little ill intent.

  9. Thank you - kind of felt like the soft version to me, too - but I really like your “…see matters of opinion as self-evident” step.

    Hey, thinking about the login issue and all the tech issues you’ve had around ET Live! and, as someone who works from home for himself (so am quite familiar with how “small” tech issues can take up large amounts of time), I wonder if the answer to the “missing” tech-driven productivity boom isn’t staring us in the face every day we fritter away time Googling problems, going down dead-end solution streets and calling tech support (a modern hell we all just accept).

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