We’ve heard a lot of scary headlines of the past few months. From the beginning estimates of 2 million deaths in the US to the daily headlines like “daily coronavirus cases surge to record level in ______,” there seemed to be no shortage of things to worry people.
The more reliable information we actually get on this virus, the more we look back and realize those headlines were likely unnecessarily alarming. The media, making something more alarming than it actually is? Color me surprised!
As a financial advisor with years of experience watching the financial media this was no surprise. People forget the main goal of the media is not necessarily to inform people, or in the case of financial media to make their readers better off financially. Their purpose is to catch eyeballs. To “sell papers” if you will.
They do this not by providing the most level-headed, balanced information, but by covering the most alarming things that create the most startling, attention-grabbing headlines. But focusing only on the small percentage of alarming things that can create great headlines can distort people’s views of reality.
Let’s take a recent example I think we are all in touch with – coverage of coronavirus case numbers. New case numbers are dropping in the epicenters of panic like New York, Italy, Spain, etc. We heard about their rising case numbers and all the anecdotal horror stories when things were getting worse daily or even hourly. But when they got better? Crickets.
I’ve been watching the case numbers in Texas, just out of curiosity more than anything else. We’ve been reporting around 1,000 new cases per day this month, not bad for a state with the population we have.
A week and a half ago I saw a headline about new case numbers in Texas “surging to an all-time high” of around 1,800. Yikes! That’s scary in light of things starting to reopen down here.
The very next day the number of new cases was 785, just one case shy of the lowest daily count this month. The day after that saw 900 new cases, making it the first two days in a row below 1,000 cases this month. Do you think that received any coverage?
Sadly, no. So people are stuck with the perception that case counts are almost double what they are in reality, and the gloom and doom theme that “things are worse than ever.”
Even if they do report numbers that could show signs of hope, they never spin them that way.
Just today I saw a headline that read "More than 800 New Coronavirus Cases Reported in Texas as Reopening Continues." Do you think there was any mention that is a 55% drop from the peak a couple weeks earlier?
There is so much of this out there now it can be hard to filter through it to find any factual data you are looking for. I ran into this myself last week looking for reliable information on coronavirus mortality rates.
Before you think I’m the type of guy who does that for fun let me explain: my sister has a 1-year-old son I am absolutely desperate to see, but naturally she is worried about him getting the virus. To try to ease her fears and explain the extremely low probability of something bad happening, I tried to look up mortality rates from COVID-19, particularly for people in a young age bracket.
But after a quick google search you know what I got? Headlines like “firefighter’s 4-month old daughter dies of COVID.”
While this is sad and terrifying, it is only one case. Not likely an accurate portrayal of the typical experience a young child would have with the virus, but this is the anecdotal information that is likely to come up when you try to get any type of factual data. This can also distort reality for people.
What are We to Do?
The first thing to do is to try to tune out the headlines the best you can. I know this is easier said than done, but pay extra attention to how news headlines are just trying to scare you and recognize what they are doing. Sometimes just knowing this can help you laugh off overly alarming headlines instead of losing sleep over them.
But of course, nobody wants to put their head in the sand and just ignore the world around them so the question is, where do you get your information? If financial advisors are the experts who offer truthful perspective that helps their clients tune out the alarming financial headlines, who is going to play a similar role for people worried about the coronavirus right now?
My only answer mirrors my advice for tuning out the financial media: find a smart person who knows the subject matter that you know you can trust. I don’t know who that exact person is; it may be different for everyone.
The person I have been looking to for COVID-19 perspective lately is a former martial arts training partner who often goes by “Joker” - kind of an odd name for the intelligent and somewhat serious guy he is. I trained with Joker at McVicker’s Martial Arts back when I was in high school, at which point he was going through medical school and his residency.
The key thing I want information on these days is whether or not it is safe or socially responsible for me to return to training jiu-jitsu.
I know Joker wants to return to training as well. But being a doctor, he is also concerned for the well-being of other people and our health care system. He is informed on medical issues and more competent than I am to make the call as to when and how it will be safe to return to training.
Though I am sure he is concerned for the financial well-being of gym owners around the country and his classmates, he doesn’t own a gym or have an economic incentive to have gyms or society in general reopen. But he is also no softie – if people passing away is a harsh reality of the way things are and necessary on the path to herd immunity, I have no doubt he would be the bearer of those inconvenient facts.
He is informed and unbiased, exactly what I am looking for in someone to filter through the information that is out there for me to make decisions. I can trust what he has to say.
I think everyone needs to find that person on every subject they need to make important, informed decisions on. I doubt you will need an expert on infectious disease and virology throughout your life, but you will for things like your physical and mental health, investing, and retirement planning. The sooner you can find that person and start tuning out all the extra noise and making informed decisions, the better off you will be.
Paul R. Ruedi, CFP® is a financial advisor at Ruedi Wealth Management.
Paul has been quoted in news publications including USA Today, Time Magazine, The New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Forbes, Inc.com, Business Insider, US News and World Report, GoBankingRates, The Street, NerdWallet, and The Penny Hoarder. He also writes articles that have been featured in CNBC, Investopedia, Yahoo Finance, Nasdaq, and MSN Money. He was named one of Investopedia's Top 100 Most Influential Financial Advisors in 2018.
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