26 Apr 2020

Are journalists sensationalizing the coronavirus pandemic?


People have become substantially more likely to say the spread of COVID-19 poses a serious threat. Yet, it seems safe to say a portion of the public believes that journalists overhyped the coronavirus pandemic. On the pandemic, the media is not one thing speaking with one voice. There is considerable disagreement between professionals. Even within the press, people disagree about outlets on the severity of the COVID-19 threat and the appropriate policy response. 

It is important to say here that sensationalizing is not the same as fabricating. Sensationalizing, unlike fabricating, is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. That immersion is happening because public demand for coronavirus content is enormous.

Understand why journalists must be protected during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Source: Committee to Protect Journalists)

Measures to protect journalists covering the COVID-19 news

Many governments worldwide and members of Congress might fund skepticism of the press exaggeration narrative. As an example, President Trump has spent years now accusing the media of malicious dishonesty. According to him, the press intended to harm the US. Then, much of his party has toed that line. 

Trump did not start recommending drastic social distancing and did not issue stay-at-home orders because they suddenly support the media and blithely follow its lead. Trump calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” “human scum,” and “some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet.”

Press as a business

Obviously, the press is also a business. It gives its customers, the public, what they want. More accurately, if it’s interesting enough to make you listen or click or buy the magazine, it’s more likely to get published. So if we have a sensationalist media, it’s because we are a sensationalist people. If sensationalism is profitable, it’s because a lot of people buy sensational content.


The coronavirus pandemic is not good for the press. It does not benefit journalists to overhype this threat and get the country shut down. Indeed, many news outlets are getting higher online traffic while much of the country is stuck at home, eager equally for signs of hope and grim confirmation that response measures are justified.

But high traffic doesn’t help if there’s no ad revenue, and businesses that aren’t making money in a closed economy aren’t spending on ads. Ad revenues have collapsed since the pandemic began. Likewise, as unemployment hurdles higher, like newspaper and magazine subscriptions will be among the first cuts from strained household budgets. Why would journalists overhype a story that threatens our own livelihoods? 

In fact, journalists are not a different class of people. They have elderly parents at risk of COVID-19 just like everyone else. They also have kids out of school and mortgages to pay. All the things you hate about the coronavirus pandemic, they also hate. But, just as you feel an obligation to keep informed, they feel an obligation to keep up coverage.