Why you should stop obsessing about coronavirus news, and how to do it

LAX worker dons a face mask
Lita Godfrey, who works in customer service at Los Angeles International Airport, puts on a face mask. Consuming too much media coverage of the outbreak can breed unnecessary fear, experts say.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s 1 in the morning and you can’t stop reading about the coronavirus.

Maybe you want to know if you should cancel your trip to Hawaii over spring break or whether your kid’s school will be closed, or how many people are likely to die.

You look for answers on websites you trust, along with some you’re not so sure about. And when you can’t find conclusive information, you keep searching, clicking and reading.

If you have descended into a coronavirus rabbit hole, you are not alone.

It’s only natural to feel anxious about the evolving coronavirus situation. It is a novel threat that has caused more than 4,200 deaths worldwide.


But experts say there is something else that is adding to our collective anxiety around the potential pandemic: fear of the unknown.

“Our brains are wired to pay additional attention to uncertainty,” said David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work.” “It is something we all have an issue with, although it affects some people more than others.”

And when it comes to coronavirus, there is a lot of uncertainty.

Researchers are still learning how the virus spreads, its fatality rate and how best to treat it. At the same time, information about new cases and deaths come in on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

Coronavirus headlines on a smartphone
A phone screen displays headlines about the coronavirus outbreak.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP-Getty Images)

Things are changing so quickly that it can be hard to know how best to respond to keep yourself and others safe.

And for some, the advice coming from public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to wash your hands, cover your cough and stay home if you’re sick — may not feel sufficient in the face of what they perceive to be an overwhelming threat.


“That information is not very satisfying to people,” said Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies risk perception. “People want a pill, they want a vaccine, they want to feel a sense of control.”

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Rock said that in the face of an ambiguous situation — maybe fine, maybe bad — our brains automatically bet on it being very bad, just in case.

“It’s an insurance policy,” he said. “If you think you hear a bear in the woods, it’s better to be safe and start running than wait until you see one running at you.”

One way people try to exert control during times of uncertainty is to increase their media consumption, said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science and public health at UC Irvine.

“When there is a lot of ambiguity and a lot of uncertainty, people are drawn to the media,” she said. “It’s a cycle that is very hard to break out of.”

An Apple Store employee in Beijing on Feb. 1, shortly before Apple closed all its stores in China.
(Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Looking to the media in a time of public crisis can be useful. Trusted sources can help you make informed decisions to protect your health. They can also counteract harmful rumors and alleviate distress by providing accurate information that puts the threat in context, Silver said. (For example, it’s helpful to be reminded that about 80% of those infected with the new coronavirus have symptoms that are mild at worst.)

However, Silver’s research over the last two decades has also shown that in times of collective trauma like natural disasters and mass shootings, the nonstop media cycle can also cause people to overestimate the severity of the threat to their own community — and that leads to psychological and even physical distress.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Silver and her collaborators found that increased television exposure to the horrific events was associated with post-traumatic stress and cardiovascular problems three years later.

“These were people who only learned about the attacks on television, and who were really stressed about it,” she said. “You didn’t have to know someone who died that day, or know someone who was there to be impacted.”

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In another study, the same team found that after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, people who reported the highest media exposure also reported higher levels of acute stress than those who were actually there.


“The media is a double-edged sword,” she said. “It is the mechanism by which we get important, validated information. But at the same time, we need to protect ourselves from the onslaught of the 24/7 news cycle.”

So, what’s a healthy dose of media that will keep you informed without needlessly stressing you out?

Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist and decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, recommends choosing three print media sources and one local public health agency to follow. Then check in on their coronavirus coverage once a day.

“Remember that the expertise of TV and radio is to keep you listening and to engage you,” he said.

Dr. Randy Taplitz, clinical director of infection prevention at UC San Diego Health, updates the media about a COVID-19 patient.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rock’s advice is to limit your coronavirus media consumption to 10 minutes a day, not 10 minutes an hour.

“The more we can feel like we are in control, the calmer we’ll be,” he said. “And one thing you can control is your media intake.”


Silver said she reminds her own friends and family to stay informed but to avoid repetitive stories with little or no new information, because they can amplify one’s sense of stress and doom.

“Things are very different this week than they were last week, and we don’t really know where things will be next week,” she said. “It is challenging and stressful to cope with all this uncertainty, but overexposure to media is not likely to help.”