In the Age of Uncertainty and Dread, Who Benefits?


Image of the Covid-Virus courtesy of the Columbia Inter-tribal Fish Commission

Cui Bono 

Forgive my cynicism.

But the pandemic news coverage spreads uncertainty and dread, and makes me cynical.

Here are some headines:

Will Covid-19 mutate into a more dangerous virus? (Britain)

Needless Suffering and Death if States Open too Soon (US)

Protect Yourself from the Fear Contagion (India)

Uncertainty creates a lot of “What if?” headlines that create stress for us muggles.

And uncertainty provides a florid breeding ground for speculation.

And speculation breeds lies.

Perhaps a wise response is to avoid headlines altogether.

Headlines that speculate about mutations of the virus merely serve to drag down a reader into the undertow of the story.

Cui bono?

Who benefits?

Web-based publications that need advertising dollars to survive have to deliver readers to their clients.

That means news stories on your smartphone or tablet are designed as click-bait.

Readers are hungry fish lured into the snare of the headline.

A click refers to the action of opening a news story—which signals to advertisers that readers are snagged.

The click analogy originates from Robert Cialdini, a leading authority on persuasion.

Cialdini called the phenomenon “click-whirr” some 36 years ago.

He got the idea from studies of mother turkeys who respond to “cheep-cheep” from their chicks with loving kindness.

Cialdini says researchers tested hens by placing stuffed, fabric polecats—an enemy of turkeys—to see how hens would respond.

Mother turkeys attacked the stuffed polecats on sight.

But when researchers inserted tiny speakers (attached to voice recorders) into the faux polecats so that they would “cheep” on command, the hens embraced their foe—literally tucking them under wing.

Cialdini called this “click-whirr.”

Cialdini says the click is the signal—the click of the tape recorder of the cheep enticement–and the whirr is the response: the reaction of the hen’s love for her chicks.

Three decades later Cialdini’s thesis still rings true.

But the click of the tape is a metaphor in 2020.

The click refers to the reader punching a keyboard to view a news story based on a headline.

And the whirr is the response.

The question is: what is your whirr response to the news story?

Is it dread? Uncertainty?

Here’s my perspective, as a former journalist and as a student of news media.

If the information is informative and sensible, tuck it under your wing.

If the information raises questions that are oblique and cause you stress, the intention may be to create dread.

What is the point of the story and who benefits from it?

If you’re not sure, it may be that the story is aimed at click-whirr: getting your attention.

If information fails to inform, then you may only benefit from anxiety and dread.

I ask myself as I read: who benefits from this story?





12 May  2020


With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations


With thanks to the students who make my life so rich by their willingness to learn





















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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1 Response to In the Age of Uncertainty and Dread, Who Benefits?

  1. Cynthia, Your words hit home, Parsing out the real data from all the smoke is exhausting and debilitating.


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