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COVID-19 PSAs on TV in 2020 were Associated with the Political Orientation of Communities in which they Aired

Since early in the pandemic, Republicans and Democrats have exhibited different attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward the COVID-19 pandemic. These beliefs have even translated into divergent mortality, with a study released last week showing that after vaccinations became widely available, Republicans had higher death rates than Democrats.

In our latest article, published open access in the journal PLOS ONE, our team examined one possible source of politically-divergent COVID-19 information: public service announcements (PSAs). PSAs are communication campaigns that air on television (usually with donated airtime) to increase the public’s awareness of health issues. In a previous paper, summarized here, we examined the content of COVID-19 PSAs aired on local and national broadcast TV in 2020. In this new analysis, we described where and when these federally-affiliated PSAs were aired from March to December 2020. (This analysis, as with the previous, did not include ads created by state governments or other local sponsors, nor ads that ran on social media.)

We linked data about the airings of federally-affiliated televised PSAs with information about the demographic and political characteristics of markets where the ads were aired. We found that most 2020 PSAs were aired in the first few months of the pandemic – March to June  – and that these airings did not track the escalating severity of the pandemic over the course of the year. We also found wide geographic variation in the volume of airings: Some local media markets in the U.S., like Syracuse, New York and Los Angeles, California, saw more than 2500 ad airings over the time period, while other markets, like Topeka, Kansas, saw fewer than 500 airings.

We examined the characteristics of these communities to better understand these geographic variations in ad volume. Was the volume of PSA airings correlated with the rates of COVID-19 in those places, or with other characteristics of those communities? We found that the share of voters in the media market who voted for Clinton in 2016 was a significant predictor of the volume of ads aired – with more ads airing for every additional percentage point of the share of the vote that went to Clinton. This association remained significant even when we controlled for the overall size of the market and its demographic characteristics, including racial composition, age distribution, and proportion with college education. In contrast, there was no statistical relationship at all between the rate of COVID-19 in those communities and the number of PSAs aired. Larger markets saw more ads aired, and those with a more educated population saw fewer, but the strongest relationship with ad volume that we identified was the partisan lean of the market.

We did not observe the decision-making process made at the station level about whether or not to air a particular PSA, so our study cannot explain why these patterns emerged. However, our findings suggest that health information in PSAs, at least for those ads that were part of the federal government’s campaign, was more commonly found on TV for residents of Democratic-leaning markets, compared to Republican-leaning markets. As we note in the paper, this could mean that health information about COVID-19 was “unequally distributed by partisanship during this crucial stage of the pandemic.” This unequal distribution of available information may even have contributed to the divergent COVID-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors across Republicans and Democrats that persist today.

Read more related work from the COMM team:

This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant no. 77645).The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.

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