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Communicating about the
Social Safety Net

Why is this important?

The social safety net – including policies to provide health insurance, food security, housing, early childhood education (ECE), and paid leave – is critical to support families and promote health equity. During the devastating early stage of the pandemic, more Americans made use of the social safety net, and investment in these systems and services is a priority of the Biden administration. Our research on news media coverage of these issues and the role of the media and messaging in shaping public perceptions of these policies or services provides evidence about public understanding about the social safety net and insights into what strategies might shift public and policymaker perspectives.


What do we know?

Historically, there has been limited evidence about how the news media cover the various components of the social safety net. Our research is filling these gaps. For example, there has been abundant TV news attention to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) generally, although attention to Medicaid in particular has been very limited. Coverage of health insurance, in both 2013-2014 and 2018-2019, has tended to report on political fights and often features politicians identified with their partisanship. Such coverage patterns can contribute to polarized responses among the public. In contrast, there has been far less TV news coverage about paid leave and ECE. Coverage of ECE in 2018-2019 tended to be sensationalized, focusing on adverse events and very rarely on policy. News coverage of paid leave, however, focused much more often on policy solutions and, in contrast with health insurance policy, presented bipartisan support. Across all of the areas, TV news coverage rarely, if ever, described the relationship between safety net investments and advancing health equity (nor do politicians in their campaign ads).

With all of these policy issues, it is important to recognize that communication is rarely one-sided or static. Advocates and policymakers on all sides of the issues – along with industry representatives, such as health insurers – compete in the information environment. Our research has found, for instance, that insurance ads shape the public’s health insurance-seeking behaviors and public opinion—but so, too, do political ads in opposition to the ACA, with higher volumes of the latter related to lower enrollment. Members of the public encounter messaging about these topics from a variety of sources that include both news and ads and often convey very different messages about the social safety net.

Our research also contributes evidence about how to communicate effectively in the face of counter-messaging. For example, we have examined the ways that stories about people and their communities can shift public opinion toward support of greater investments in the social safety net (though stories must be carefully constructed to achieve these goals; see here). We have also tested the conditions under which strategic messages can “inoculate” audiences against messaging that opposes evidence-based policies that advance population health (see here and here), finding that these strategies can be effective (though they may have limited impact on issues that have been politicized and partisan). We have further explored how messages framed to align with moral and/or partisan values can enhance the likelihood of generating support among audiences from diverse political ideologies (see here and here). Finally, we have described the effects of how various portrayals of social safety net policies shape perceptions of who benefits from the policy and could invite biased and racist views about who is  “deserving” of such support

Implications for Journalists, Advocates, and Policymakers

The ways that policies surrounding the social safety net are depicted in media lay the groundwork for how people think about these issues and the extent to which they may be willing (or not) to consider greater government investment and intervention in these areas. Journalists, advocates, and policymakers alike should recognize that the information environment around these topics is complex and dynamic, and the public learns about topics like health insurance not only from the news but also ads (including political ads). Failure to consider the breadth of the information environment and its broad influence could lead to incomplete understandings of how the public and other stakeholders think about these issues, and how efforts to promote increased investment may resonate with or run counter to current perceptions. It is also important to consider the perspectives and insights from those who currently benefit or could potentially benefit from social safety net policies and the ways communication influences broad ideas about program eligibility, available resources, and engagement with political processes to garner support for policy or related reform. Decisions about whose perspectives to emphasize and whose stories to tell (through either story text or accompanying images), can have far-reaching effects on the ways that social safety net policies are received by various audiences.  

To Learn More

Niederdeppe, J., Bu, Q. L., Borah, P., Kindig, D. A., & Robert, S. A. (2008). Message design strategies to raise public awareness of social determinants of health and population health disparities. The Milbank Quarterly, 86(3), 481-513.

Gollust, S. E., Fowler, E. F., & Niederdeppe, J. (2019). Television news coverage of public health issues and implications for public health policy and practice. Annual Review of Public Health, 40, 167-185.

Gollust, S. E., Fowler, E. F., & Niederdeppe, J. (2020). Ten Years of Messaging about the Affordable Care Act in Advertising and News Media: Lessons for Policy and Politics. Journal of health politics, policy and law, 45(5), 711-728.