Constant bad news about Covid is enough to make you sick

Much research demonstrates that consuming too much bad news takes a toll on health

Late-shift medical staff donning PPE on the Covid side of the emergency department of St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

Late-shift medical staff donning PPE on the Covid side of the emergency department of St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

I have no doubt many of you, like myself, are sick and tired of listening to non-stop bad news in the media about Covid-19. “Sick and tired” in this context is not merely a phrase – prolonged exposure to bad news can literally make you sick. We need to take steps to protect ourselves in this regard.

Radio and TV news programmes are big offenders. I switch on radio news at 8am as I get up. Almost all the content is bad news about Covid-19: death rates, increasing infectivity, increasing pressures on intensive care units, vaccine availability delayed, lockdown duration extended and so on.

This commentary continues up to lunchtime, leaks into magazine programmes in the afternoon and picks up again in the evening news, and later in discussion programmes. This picture is mirrored on TV.

Of course we need our media to keep us informed about the ongoing state of play with this Covid-19 pandemic, but not to the extent we are now witnessing. We badly need the wall-to-wall diet of pessimistic Covid-19 coverage to be liberally interrupted with high-quality uplifting programmes on the arts, culture, travel, nature and science. For example, what about Government liberally commissioning locked-down musicians and actors to perform concerts and plays for public transmission? The current mix on that front is simply too little.

Much research demonstrates that consuming too much bad news, for example on terrorist attacks, natural disasters and so on, takes a toll on health, increasing the incidence of stress, anxiety and depression and leading on to various organic diseases. A study carried out after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing showed that people exposed to more than six hours of media coverage of this outrage per day were nine times more likely to show high acute stress than people exposed to a minimum amount of news – in fact, they were even more stressed than people who actually attended the marathon.

Ebola outbreak

The 2014 Ebola outbreak received unprecedented media attention in the US, causing negative psychological outcomes. Polls showed that 64 per cent of Americans were seriously concerned about Ebola and 45 per cent feared that either they or a family member might get sick. In fact the risk to the average person was essentially zero, according to a study published in Clinical Psychological Science. Eleven people in total were treated for Ebola in the US.

Another study assessed the effects of repeated exposure to media coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and subsequently to graphic media images of the Iraq war 2003-2011. Post-traumatic stress symptoms related to 9/11 and physician-diagnosed health elements were assessed annually for three years and related to the media exposure. Early exposure and frequency of exposure predicted increased post-traumatic stress symptoms two to three years after 9/11, according to research by Roxane Silver and others in Psychological Science.

It is therefore extremely likely that the non-stop media coverage of Covid-19 over the past year has harmed public health. And if we add in ill-health consequences of the extended lockdowns, the total health cost is probably considerable.

Responsible reporting

The media has an obligation to report the Covid-19 pandemic more responsibly. Much of the current endless coverage is just lazy programming – there are endless aspects of the problem to talk about, endless gloomy statistics and no shortage of spokespeople to interview. Bad news is inherently more gripping than good news and the media wants to keep us tuned in. So, wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic is unlikely to significantly reduce any time soon.

What are we to do? We must take action ourselves. Luckily the solution is simple. We should simply limit our diet of exposure to Covid-19 coverage.

The American Psychological Association recommends that people should use a trusted source of information to stay abreast of critical updates about this pandemic, be it a national broadcaster, a trusted print outlet such as a newspaper or the WHO. We should avoid social media and repetitive exposure to general media stories – one news bulletin per day, preferably in the evening, should be sufficient.

We should pay most attention to critical new information reported by trusted sources. In this regard I recommend TCD immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill’s regular radio broadcasts on Covid-19. They are models of easily understood, expert and good-humoured commentary and scientifically based advice on how we can navigate our way out of this pandemic tunnel.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

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