News and Commentary

Media Fearmongering Has Led To Misconceptions About Risk Of Death From COVID-19
Coronavirus newspaper headline montage - stock photo

New research suggests Americans have developed many misconceptions about their risk of death from the coronavirus pandemic. Americans who responded to a web survey vastly overestimated the risk of death among younger people while underestimating the risk of death among older Americans.

The study, conducted by Franklin Templeton Investments and Gallup Research, found that Democrats in particular and people who obtained their news primarily from social media were misinformed. Sonal Desai, chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Fixed Income, described the three major ways in which Americans “misunderstand the risk of dying from COVID-19”:

  1. On average, Americans believe that people aged 55 and older account for just over half of total COVID-19 deaths; the actual figure is 92%.
  2. Americans believe that people aged 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%.
  3. Americans overestimate the risk of death from COVID-19 for people aged 24 and younger by a factor of 50; and they think the risk for people aged 65 and older is half of what it actually is (40% vs 80%).

“These results are nothing short of stunning. Mortality data have shown from the very beginning that the COVID-19 virus age-discriminates, with deaths overwhelmingly concentrated in people who are older and suffer comorbidities. This is perhaps the only uncontroversial piece of evidence we have about this virus. Nearly all US fatalities have been among people older than 55; and yet a large number of Americans are still convinced that the risk to those younger than 55 is almost the same as to those who are older,” Desai wrote.

The explanation for this massive misperception comes from how the media has covered the coronavirus pandemic and who social media has spread that misinformation.

“This, sadly, comes as no surprise. Fear and anger are the most reliable drivers of engagement; scary tales of young victims of the pandemic, intimating that we are all at risk of dying, quickly go viral; so do stories that blame everything on your political adversaries. Both social and traditional media have been churning out both types of narratives in order to generate more clicks and increase their audience,” Desai wrote. “The fact that the United States is in an election year has exacerbated the problem. Stories that emphasize the dangers of the pandemic to all age cohorts and tie the risk to the Administration’s handling of the crisis likely tend to resonate much more with Democrats than Republicans. This might be a contributing factor to why, in our survey results, Democrats tend to overestimate the risk of dying from COVID-19 for different age cohorts to a greater extent than Republicans do.”

The study also found that how information is provided played a role in people’s opinions:

Our susceptibility to how the information is presented also plays a role. The same data can be portrayed in different forms on a graph—some reassuring and some alarming. Our study finds that how the data are presented has a very strong impact on people’s attitudes. For example, respondents who were shown COVID-19 case trends for Texas and Florida in isolation were much less willing to reopen schools and businesses than those who were shown the same trends compared to New York. And more alarming graphics tend to be used more frequently, as they generate greater engagement.

To be fair, the study only looked at COVID-19’s risk of death, not the risk of health consequences from those who contracted the disease but survived. We are still learning the long-term complications from those who survived the disease.

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