How to Spot (and Cope With) Alarmist COVID Headlines

drawing of woman holding a magnifying glass over a newspaper

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • Many news articles about the pandemic have been using alarmist headlines to reach more readers.
  • Alarmist headlines can cause stress and sometimes oversimplify a more nuanced news article.
  • Developing media literacy skills and diversifying your “news diet” can help counteract the emotional impact of alarmist headlines.

Checking the news has become an essential part of staying informed about the pandemic and breakthroughs in COVID-19 treatments and vaccines over the past year.

But as you’re scrolling through social media and your go-to news outlets, you’re bound to see some alarmist headlines. Perhaps you come across a story about a rare side effect from the COVID-19 vaccine or how a new virus variant might be more deadly. Just a few dramatic words in the headline of a news story can make anyone panic—even if the story ultimately includes important information.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to avoid letting scary news stories affect your mental health.  Here’s why the pandemic has led to a surge in alarmist headlines, along with tips from media literacy experts on the best ways to avoid getting overwhelmed by news on the coronavirus.

Why Are There So Many Alarmist Headlines?

It comes down to click-bait and profits for media outlets. A headline is typically your first impression of a story. It can be the deciding factor on whether you choose to read the entire article.

Since many digital media outlets get advertising revenue based on how many clicks a story receives, they’ll often use dramatic or exciting language in a headline to entice readers. The story itself may be loaded with truthful, useful information, but the headline might only focus on a small, yet shocking detail to encourage you to click into the article.

Kristy Roschke, PhD

Sensationalist, click-bait headlines are used to drive people into content.

— Kristy Roschke, PhD

“Sensationalist, click-bait headlines are used to drive people into content,” explains Kristy Roschke, PhD, media literacy instructor and managing director of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s a feature of digital news, but it’s not new. We also see it in broadcast TV with teasers, written in a way to attract people’s attention to keep them engaged for longer.”

So why does it seem like we’re seeing even more alarmist headlines during the pandemic? 

Part of the reason is that the pandemic is one of the few issues that affect everyone in the world. Because the audience for pandemic news is so broad, you have many organizations (journalistic and otherwise) creating content about COVID-19 and vying for readers, says Sanket Shah, MSHI, clinical assistant professor for biomedical and health information sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“It’s so captivating on a broader scale. No matter what industry you’re in or what type of contribution you make to society, this is a story that applies to us all,” he says. 

With more organizations competing for readers on their stories about the pandemic, they may be more likely to publish alarmist headlines that pull on readers' emotions, rather than delivering unadulterated facts. 

Another problem is the complexity of reporting on the pandemic. Vaccines, viruses, and similar topics are extremely complicated, and our understanding of them continues to develop. 

Headlines, which are short and punchy by design, don’t lend themselves to the nuance full articles on complex subjects require for accuracy. The headline could end up oversimplifying the story and fail to reflect the distinct details in the report.

These issues are further exacerbated by social media, especially when people share an alarmist headline without reading the entire article. 

Jennifer Brannock Cox, PhD

A lot of what people share will be stuff that’s provocative, and it becomes this vicious cycle of terrible headlines and people feeling that the news is all bad.

— Jennifer Brannock Cox, PhD

“Audiences are now often turning to social media platforms to get their news. A lot of what people share will be stuff that’s provocative, and it becomes this vicious cycle of terrible headlines and people feeling that the news is all bad,” says Jennifer Brannock Cox, PhD, director of the Salisbury University Media Literacy Institute and associate professor in the university’s communication department.

How to Cope With Alarmist Headlines and Find Trustworthy News

Alarmist headlines can put news consumers in a conflicting position. On the one hand, you want to stay informed about the latest breakthroughs on treatments, vaccines, and everything else related to the ongoing pandemic. But the fear, anger, and sadness you might experience after seeing a sensational story can be so overwhelming, you might feel like avoiding the news altogether.

Those alarmist headlines aren’t going away anytime soon, so it’s important to find ways to cope. One thing that can help is not assuming a headline is telling you the full story—it’s often just a tiny piece of a more complicated issue that you can only begin to understand by reading the full article.

“Take every headline with a grain of salt,” advises Roschke. “Headlines are meant to attract our attention and evoke emotion. Sometimes the person who wrote the headline isn’t the person who wrote the story, so the headline can be taken out of context. You can’t reduce a complex topic into a headline.”

If a headline or story tugs at your emotions, that’s not necessarily a reason to avoid it, but instead try to put it into context before reacting. Look around to see if other media are reporting on the same story to determine if there’s truth behind it, and if so, read a few other articles on the topic to get different points of view. 

Looking into the sources an article uses can also help you determine whether it should be trusted. Most digital media outlets will link to their sources in the text or include a list at the end of the article. If they’re relying on the government, peer-reviewed scientific studies, and authoritative primary sources for their information, they are generally considered to be more reliable sources of news. 

Sanket Shah, MSHI

Understanding where this information is coming from and whether it’s backed by authorities can ensure that the public is dealing with this crisis accordingly.

— Sanket Shah, MSHI

“Understanding where this information is coming from and whether it’s backed by authorities can ensure that the public is dealing with this crisis accordingly,” says Shah. “Stick with tried-and-true, reputable sources of news, and cross-check the information.” 

Adopting what Cox calls a “balanced news diet” also can help counteract the emotional impact of alarmist headlines about coronavirus news.

“When we’re trying to achieve a healthy body, we vary what we eat. The same goes for your news diet, too,” she says. “You want substantial news that will inform and educate you. Then, it’s OK to mix in a little bit of entertainment and sports news. Reading news across the spectrum will help your mental health in that way.” 

Finally, give yourself the freedom to take a break from the news when the alarmist headlines are stressing you out. 

“It’s good to stay on top of the latest developments and to know about updates to guidelines, but you don’t need to be looking at the news all the time to find that. You can truly check the news once a day and be just fine,” says Roschke. “Stepping away from the news for some time can be really beneficial.”

What This Means For You

The alarmist headlines on many stories about the pandemic can spark all kinds of reactions, from fear and sadness to stress and anxiety. That can turn catching up on the news into an overwhelming experience, making it difficult to put the information into context.

Alarmist headlines don’t often capture the full story, though. Instead of taking them at face value, click into the story to read the full article, which often contains more nuance. Then, cross-check the information with authoritative sources (like government agencies) and see how other reputable publications are reporting on the issue.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet is an experienced writer who specializes in health, wellness, travel, and finance.