During a pandemic, public-health messaging is essential to saving lives. Media organizations have played a major role in that messaging over the past year, and not always for the better.
Across the English-speaking world, many news stories about the spread of COVID-19 have been accompanied by photographs of people in outdoor settings, particularly beaches. “Many news organizations have seized upon beaches, and scenes of beachgoers, as a sign of why things are so bad in the United States,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic last summer. She has compiled many examples of the phenomenon in an ongoing Twitter thread.
Why publications keep using these photos is hard to pinpoint. In a health crisis, many people may feel provoked by the sight of others cavorting in the sun—even though one of the best ways to avoid COVID-19, which spreads easiest when individuals inhale particles exhaled by others, is to avoid public indoor spaces in favor of outdoor spaces. Or perhaps beach pictures, which have a somewhat aspirational quality and typically feature attractive people wearing bathing suits, just draw lots of readers.
Regardless, our research indicates that these news articles with beach photos actually leave some readers with a false sense of which activities are riskiest.
In late October, we conducted a randomized controlled trial on a sample of 3,021 American adults to assess how photos affected their interpretation of news articles. We chose real news stories about the pandemic from The New York Times, The Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle and randomly paired them with photographs of beaches and bars. (These pairings weren’t a stretch; some of the articles were originally published alongside beach photos.) After reading the article alongside the associated image, participants were prompted to report their overall fear of COVID-19 infection and to rank the following venues based on their perception of risk: beach, restaurant, public park, hair salon, and gym.
We found that when people saw coverage of COVID-19 accompanied by a picture of a beach, they placed beaches higher on their list of risky venues. Never mind that the text of the articles either didn’t mention indoor-versus-outdoor risk or explicitly noted that outdoor environments (such as beaches) have lower risk than indoor ones (such as restaurants). Furthermore, the proportion of readers who incorrectly believed that beaches are riskier than restaurants was about six percentage points higher when an article about the pandemic was accompanied by a beach picture.
In short, when accompanied by beach pictures, even factually correct articles made readers’ beliefs about pandemic risk significantly less accurate. These results held across age, race, gender, political affiliation, and media-consumption habits.
We also evaluated a separate set of control conditions in which an article about an unrelated topic (a form of architectural design) had no associated picture, a picture of a beach, or a picture of a bar. Just showing a picture of a beach alongside the control article about architecture did not significantly affect participants’ perception of COVID-19 risk at beaches. What mattered was the combination of beach photos and pandemic reporting.
Many news organizations have taken their responsibilities very seriously during the pandemic, whether by making their coverage of the pandemic free, maintaining open data sets to fill in government-information gaps, or providing real-time assessments of local COVID-19 risk. Commendably, many news organizations have also set an explicit goal of helping readers and viewers understand precautions (including masking, testing, and vaccination) that reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission and that mitigate the damage of the pandemic overall. Reporters and editors have consulted public-health experts to fact-check the guidance that news outlets are putting out.
But our experiment demonstrates that all of this may not be sufficient. The measure of good public-health messaging is not merely whether experts would deem an article factually correct but also whether a layperson takes away the correct message. In an epidemic, ripple effects can be large. A single misinformed person can touch off a series of infections and even deaths that might have been avoided.
Misconceptions about safety can also distort public policy. Over the past year, many governments have been slow to promote outdoor recreation, and a number of communities have even shut down beaches, parks, and other outdoor recreation areas, which makes little sense as a health precaution. Even at this stage of the pandemic, efforts to dispel misinformation can save lives.
We should note that our experiment, available as a preprint, has yet to be peer-reviewed. It does not measure how incorrect beliefs induced by beach photos might affect people’s behavior. But merely a reasonable possibility of these beliefs causing behavior harmful to the community should make news outlets rethink their decisions. To start, outlets publishing stories about COVID-19 should choose pictures of crowded indoor environments (restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms) that experts agree are most conducive to viral spread.
Even beyond the pandemic, media organizations should, in some circumstances, perform explicit testing of the beliefs readers come away with, perhaps through automated reader surveys or the kind of experiments we have outlined here. These tools could alert editors to situations in which seemingly innocuous choices—such as which photo illustrates a story—lead to dangerous misunderstandings. Such research can be seen as an extension of the fact-checking process that all major publications employ already.
Good journalism should give readers and viewers a more accurate view of the world. At the least, it should obey the Hippocratic aphorism “First, do no harm.”