Post #963: COVID deaths, COVID total current hospitalizations, and the news hole.

Posted on January 19, 2021

These days, I’m seeing a lot of reporting on daily COVID deaths, and, as a totally new twist, on the total number of COVID patients currently in the hospital.  But I’m not seeing much reporting on daily new COVID cases, or daily new hospital admissions.

Why?  That’s because those first two are lagged indicators, and are still going up.  It doesn’t go one inch deeper than that. 

What brought this to my attention was a recent news article devoted to hospitalizations, where they focused solely on the total number of people in the hospital.  That is, the stock of current patients, regardless of when they were admitted.  I couldn’t grasp why they thought that was any indicator of the current state of the pandemic, except insofar as there are bed shortages (which was not the focus of the article).  And then it dawned on me that total persons in the hospital is a lagged indicator.  Like deaths, it won’t crest until a couple of weeks after daily new cases crests.  So it was one of the few indicators that they could write about that was still rising.  And so, they did write about it.

Just by-the-by, here’s the situation on daily new cases, using data through 1/18/2021.  Nothing new, if you’ve been following along.  (If you haven’t been following along, the first two dips are temporary artifacts of the holidays, but this last decline is something new.)  For whatever reason, new COVID cases are now declining in almost every state.  To my eye, it’s weirdly, almost spookily coordinated, for states that are thousands of miles apart.  The sole significant exception being Virginia, but that’s another story (Post #961).

Source:  Calculated from NY Times Github COVID repository data, cases reported through 1/18/2021.

Anyway, if I have a point to this, it’s that I don’t hate the media.  Mostly. But as an economist, I tend to view them first and foremost as the economic enterprises that they are. 

From the perspective of economics, nothing sums up the media more than the term news hole.  Depending on who’s defining it, that’s the space left over after publishers have placed all their paid ads.  Or, equivalently, that’s the hole in publishers’ advertising revenue that they must suffer by using their space to provide content.  It’s the price they pay to attract readers or viewers to their actual content, ads.

And, separately, I think “hole” captures the indifference to (or maybe contempt for) the actual content.  It’s a hole.  You fill it with whatever is handy.

Every day, news publishers have an imperative to fill the news hole as efficiently as possible.  Articles that cost them next-to-nothing, yet keep the readers entertained, will get published.  Anything that scores well as click bait will get published.  And by imperative, I mean that most can’t afford not to publish stuff like that and hope to survive.

The economics of the situation lead directly to “If it bleeds, it leads“.  Or, more generally, fear-based mediaDead children — it doesn’t get any better than that, from a purely business standpoint.  (Gets your attention, don’t it?)  Which, I would claim, virtually all of us have recognized at one time or the other.

And, to be clear, the same appeal to primal fears drives the gonzo world of conspiracy theorists.  You simply remove any constraints about the stories having to be true.  So substitute “child abuse” for “dead children” and bingo — you’ve got Q-Anon.

I could blather further.  Obviously, this is not the entire picture.  We owe a lot to a free press, and there is some real journalism going on.  But that’s the leavening in the news hole loaf.  And it’s not as if this is a new phenomenon.  But surely every sane U.S. adult has noticed that the great preponderance of fear-based media.

This is really by way of saying that if I’m almost the only one talking about the recent, nation-wide decline in daily new cases (the graphs above), it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I’m wrong, crazy, or even overly optimistic.  It can simply mean that there’s no money to be made in trying to use a story about declining new COVID cases to fill the news hole.

“Oh my God, we’re not all going to die” makes for lousy click-bait.

And this doesn’t mean I’m right, either.  I don’t want to come across as that sort of nut.

Finally, it doesn’t mean that there’s some purposeful bias in the reporting.  The lack of stories isn’t some hidden pro-Biden agenda, socialist plot, or anything of the sort.

It’s just business people going about the normal course of business.  When it gets to the point where a story about declining case counts will sell ads, that’s pretty much when you’re going to see widespread coverage of that story.  (Or, in about another week, because the 1/8/2021 peak in new cases — assuming the decline continues — means that deaths and current persons hospitalized should be peaking just a few days from now.)

If I could only get somebody in mainstream media to focus on North Dakota and h*** i******.

I’m not bothering to put the regional graphs in this posting because every one of them continues the trends shown in the last round.