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New contagious diseases are scary. They frighten us because they are unknown and unpredictable. The ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus has received extensive media attention, coverage that can tell us a lot about how uncertainty in the face of such an epidemic can all too easily breed fear.
For about a decade, I have been studying the role of emotions in journalism, including in the coverage of disasters and crises. Media coverage is vital to our shared conversations and plays a key role in regulating our emotions, including fear.
While fear is an emotion that we frequently experience as individuals, it can also be a shared and social emotion, one which circulates through groups and communities and shapes our reactions to ongoing events. Like other emotions, fear is contagious and can spread swiftly.
Media coverage sets the agenda for public debate. While the news doesn’t necessarily tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. In doing so, the news signals what issues merit our attention. Research has consistently shown that when issues receive extensive media coverage and are prominent in the news agenda, they also come to be seen as more important by members of the public.
The current outbreak has been much more prominent in media coverage than recent epidemics, including Ebola. For example, a Time Magazine study shows that there were 23 times more articles in English-language print news covering the coronavirus outbreak in its first month compared to the same time period for the Ebola epidemic in 2018.
My own research suggests that fear has played a particularly vital role in coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Since reports first started circulating about the new mystery illness on January 12, and up until February 13 2020, I have tracked reporting in major English-language newspapers around the world, using the LexisNexis UK database. This includes almost 100 high-circulation newspapers from around the world, which have collectively published 9,387 stories about the outbreak. Of these, 1,066 articles mention “fear” or related words, including “afraid”.
Such stories often used other frightening language – for example, 50 articles used the phrase “killer virus”. One article in The Telegraph newspaper was typical of this fear-inducing language, in describing scenes on the ground in Wuhan shared on social media:
Mask-wearing patients fainting in the street. Hundreds of fearful citizens lining cheek by jowl, at risk of infecting each other, in narrow hospital corridors as they wait to be treated by doctors in forbidding white hazmat suits. A fraught medic screaming in anguish.
Tabloid newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail, were more likely to use fear-inducing language. For example, The Sun’s coronavirus liveblog routinely refers to the virus as a “deadly disease”.
Many stories offered local angles by reporting on fears in local areas affected by the outbreak. In the UK, this led to a particular focus on Brighton, where several cases have been reported. For example, a story in The Times suggested:
Conversations about miniature bottles of antibacterial hand sanitiser are normally far from a mainstay of lunchtime pub chitchat. However, such is the anxiety over the coronavirus that locals in The Grenadier in Hove yesterday readily admitted to changing their hand-washing routines.
Other reports localised the story by discussing the impact on Chinese-owned businesses. The Manchester Evening News, for instance, reported that: “The fear of coronavirus is hitting businesses hard, with some reporting a 50 per cent drop in custom since the outbreak. And Chinese Mancunians report suffering more racial abuse.”
A number of stories, by contrast, sought to temper fears and provide reassurance. For example, Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsein Loong was widely quoted in cautioning against panic:
Fear can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumours online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.
Fear can be catching
Research on coverage of earlier disease outbreaks show a similar emphasis on fear. In the case of the SARS epidemic in 2003, a study by historian Patrick Wallis and linguist Brigitte Nerlich found that “the main conceptual metaphor used was SARS as a killer”.
Along the same lines, media scholars Peter Vasterman and Nel Ruigrok examined coverage of the H1N1 epidemic in The Netherlands, and found that it was marked by the “alarming” tone of its coverage. Like the coronavirus, these historical outbreaks were characterised by uncertainty, breeding fear and panic.
To put these observations into perspective, it is instructive to look to a comparison to coverage of seasonal influenza, which is estimated by the World Health Organization to kill 290,000 to 650,000 people around the world every year. Since January 12 2020, world newspapers have published just 488 articles on the seasonal influenza without mention of the coronavirus.
In sharp contrast to coverage of this novel coronavirus, fewer than one in ten stories about flu (37 of 488) mentioned fear or similar phrases.
The prominence of fear as a theme in reports of the coronavirus suggests that much of the coverage of the outbreak is more a reflection of public fear than informative of what is actually happening in terms of the spread of the virus.
The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2019 (commonly known as the Nobel Prize for Economics) has been awarded to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. Through the award, the Nobel committee recognised both the significance of development economics in the world today and the innovative approaches developed by these three economists.
Global poverty continues to be a massive challenge. The award follows Angus Deaton, who received it in 2015 for his contributions to development economics – the field that studies the causes of global poverty and how best to combat it – particularly, his emphasis on people’s consumption choices and the measurement of well-being, especially the well-being of the poor.
Well-developed theory can highlight what causes poverty and, based on this, suggest policies to combat it. But it cannot tell us exactly how powerful specific policy measures will be in practice. This is precisely where the contributions of Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer lie. The Nobel citation gives several examples of their impact, including how their research has helped education, health and access to credit for many in the developing world, most famously in India and Kenya.
Consider, for example, child mortality and health – issues of immense significance in the developing world. Theory can tell us that women’s empowerment is important for child health and mortality outcomes, but cannot tell us which policy will be most effective in combating this. It could be a focus on educating mothers, or access to healthcare, or electoral representation, or marital age legislation.
Perhaps, more importantly, theory cannot tell us how large and significant the impact will be of these various policies. And this is where the significance of the Nobel Prize this year comes in.
A new, experimental approach
The fundamental contribution of Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer was to develop an experimental approach to development economics. They built a scientific framework and used hard data to identify causes of poverty, estimate the effects of different policies and then evaluate their cost effectiveness. Specifically, they developed randomised control trials (RCTs) to do this. They used these to study different policies in action and to promote those that were most effective.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Kremer and co-authors started a series of RCTs on schooling in Kenya, designing field experiments to evaluate the impact of specific policies on improving outcomes. This approach was revolutionary. The experiments showed that neither more textbooks nor free school meals made any real difference to learning outcomes. Instead, it was the way that teaching was carried out that was the biggest factor.
Studies by Banerjee and Duflo, often together with Kremer and others, followed. They initially focused on education, and then expanded into other areas, including health, credit and agriculture.
Banerjee and Duflo were able to use these studies to explain why some businesses and people in less developed countries do not take advantage of the best available technologies. They highlighted the significance of market imperfections and government failures. By devising policies to specifically address the root of problems, they have helped make possible real contributions to alleviating poverty in these countries.
Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer also took significant steps towards applying specific findings to different contexts. This brought economic theories of incentives closer to direct application, fundamentally transforming the practice of development economics, by using practical, verifiable and quantitative knowledge to isolate causes of poverty and to devise adequate policy based on behavioural responses.
The impact of these developments upon real world development outcomes are immensely significant. Their work, and substantial amounts of research that followed it, established evidence on fighting poverty in many developing countries. And they are continuously expanding their horizon of contributions, which now also includes climate and environmental policy, social networks and cognitive science.
The 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics is also significant for reasons of inclusivity. The impact generated by Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer’s approach has come about very quickly – actually, in less than two decades. This explains why, at the age of 47, Duflo is the youngest-ever recipient of the economics Nobel. She is also only the second woman to be awarded the prize (after Elinor Ostrom in 2009). Banerjee, who is also her husband, is the third ever non-white recipient (after Arthur Lewis in 1979 and Amartya Sen in 1998).
In a recent issue of the journal Nature, Göran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that awards the Nobel, highlighted measures to address the imbalance in gender and ethnicity among winners. He said “we are making sure to elect women to the academy” from which the prize-awarding committees for the chemistry, physics and economics Nobels are drawn.
The pipeline to this achievement is important. The first woman to win the John Bates Clark Medal for top economists under 40, an important indicator of who will be awarded the economics Nobel in the future, Susan Athey, only did so in 2007. Esther Duflo was the second winner in 2010. Since then, women winners of the Clark medal have been more frequent. Of course, award decisions are made strictly on significance of contributions. But, based on this evidence, perhaps Athey, Amy Finkelstein (who won the medal in 2012) and Emi Nakamura (who won it in 2019) will not be far behind.
The Apollo project gave us the astonishing spectacle of a blue marble rising over the sterile surface of the moon. Of course, the moon was already known to be uninhabitable. But being shown something in high-resolution colour photography makes a stronger impression than being told it by the experts. Our planet appeared in the photos as a small, vulnerable object amid surroundings utterly inimical to life. They showed, in a way that no scientific report could, the importance of keeping the Earth habitable, boosting the environmental movement.
But the moon landings affected many people in precisely the opposite way. No other public project has been such a spectacular success. The aim was so simple and concrete that everyone could immediately grasp it. Kennedy’s commitment to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” was made before the US had even put a man into orbit. Yet it was achieved just eight years later – barely half the time it takes nowadays to build a new railway across London. “Top that,” the Americans can easily say. Fifty years on, no one has.
The trouble with spectacular successes is that they breed complacency. The moon landings reinforced the belief that technology will always be able to solve our problems. Everyone knows the saying, “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can…” All we need is the will to do it. And a lot of money, of course. But not as much as you might think: the entire Apollo programme, over 12 years, cost about £120 billion in today’s money. That’s how much the US spends on its military in 11 weeks (and Britain in three years). If technology can do that, what can it not do?
This faith in technology has given us a false sense of security. Every day we hear urgent warnings about antibiotic resistance, soil depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and of course climate change. These imminent catastrophes are the result of our own behaviour. The obvious solution is to change that behaviour: to stop abusing antibiotics, destroying tropical forests, burning fossil fuels, and so on. Yet we don’t.
Part of the reason we don’t is the expectation that technology will save us. If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can develop new antibiotics, replenish the soil and restore the tropical forests. We can stop climate change by building machines to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. (And anyway, we can build walls to keep out the rising seas.) All we need is better politicians.
This sense of security is unwarranted. Technology cannot do everything. Once an ecosystem has been completely destroyed or a species has gone extinct, nothing can bring it back. No new Apollo programme will ever enable us to raise the dead after they have turned to dust. Some things are simply impossible – not for lack of money or technical know-how, but because of the laws of nature.
And just as our sense of security overestimates the power of technology, it underestimates the political obstacles. It’s not just that large public science projects are out of fashion. The moon landings had the advantage of drawing on national pride: they served to demonstrate the superiority of the US over other countries – the Soviet Union in particular.
Combating antibiotic resistance, deforestation, and climate change, by contrast, requires all countries to work together. And these projects are unlike the moon landings in being essentially altruistic: one country’s expenditure benefits all inhabitants of the planet equally, whether or not they have contributed themselves. The selfish can get a free ride.
A further obstacle is that solving problems we have created for ourselves is not the sort of thing that easily inspires greatness. No one likes cleaning up after the party. It was easy to excite people about the first moon landing because it was such a great spectacle. We could watch it on TV in real time, from blast-off to splashdown. Like a good mini-series, it lasted just eight days. Averting catastrophe is not like that – especially when the problem cannot be shown in a simple stunning image.
Saving the planet doesn’t make compelling TV. There is no dramatic start or end point. And if the mission succeeds, the result will be only more of the same: the absence of catastrophe. What could be more boring? In democratic societies at least, addressing global problems will always be a hard sell. That’s why Kennedy’s contemporary heirs have done so little.
The success of the moon landings is no reason to expect technology to save us from ourselves. I fear it will make catastrophe more likely. Technology can help, but we need to know its limits. We’d be better off forgetting about rocketry and remembering the image of our planet as a tiny oasis in an inhospitable universe.