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What Role Did Local News Play in the Controversy About Masks?

The Covid-19 pandemic posed a particularly difficult challenge for public health communicators because the information environment was rife with partisan cues and messaging that often contradicted or challenged the authority of scientific experts. The media played an ambiguous role in this regard: On the one hand, it served as a conduit for scientific advice to the public, on the other, it had the potential to disseminate and amplify misinformation.

In a recently published article, our team (led by Markus Neumann) explored the way in which masking (i.e., wearing of facial coverings to reduce viral transmission) was portrayed on local television over the first 22 months of the pandemic. In particular, we examined both the volume of attention to masking and also the proportion of this coverage that portrayed the issue as controversial and cited partisan figures within it. Local news was especially critical as an information source because public health recommendations for behaviors (including masking) were intentionally meant to differ by severity of local transmission, which local news was particularly well positioned to provide.

Our analysis draws upon closed captioning information from TVEyes to computationally identify all stories related to masking that were broadcast on local television news stations affiliated with the four major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC), during all times of the day, and every day of the week. Among 2.3 million broadcasts (each containing half an hour worth of content), we identified 3.6 million stories that were related to masking in the context of the pandemic. We further identified 15 percent of these to contain controversy, 9 percent to contain partisan cues, and 2 percent to contain both.

The plot shown here illustrates the amount of news coverage on masks (blue line) over the course of almost two years, relating it to case counts (green). In the initial phase of the pandemic, news coverage of masks followed case rates; when case rates went up, so did news coverage of masks. However, by the third wave towards the end of 2020, local news stations reduced their coverage of masks, despite cases increasing. This indicates that there was no clean correlation between the importance of the problem and the extent to which it was covered in the news. One potential explanation is that news coverage wasn’t driven by case rates, but instead by pandemic-related events, of which the early phase contained a lot. The dashed vertical lines indicate events that may have been particularly pertinent, be it because they related directly to masks, such as changes in CDC guidelines, or events that were perceived as partisan – such as Joe Biden calling for mask mandates (at a time when he was just a candidate) – or controversial such as Donald Trump getting Covid and refusing to wear a mask as he had secret service officers drive him around. The plot shows that many of these events were accompanied by clear spikes in both coverage of masks, as well as controversy (red line). It is likely that news covering the 2020 presidential election also played a role in supplanting pandemic-related coverage.

Our statistical analysis provides additional evidence, indicating that the relationship between case counts and (controversial/partisan) coverage of masks was, at best, tenuous and dependent on the phase of the pandemic (with a tighter connection in the earlier waves). Turning to other factors, we also found the partisanship of the governor relative to the partisanship of the legislature, as well as the overall balance between the two parties (purple vs. deep red or blue states) to be relevant to the volume of partisan controversy, but not overwhelmingly so. One very clear finding, however, was that stations owned by Sinclair–a media organization with a clear right-wing slant–aired considerably fewer stories on masks overall, and the ones they did air contained controversy and partisan cues more frequently. This is the one finding that always persisted very clearly no matter how we sliced the data, indicating that profit- and ideology-driven news organizations played a role in shaping the narrative on masks in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this light, the discordance during the early phase of the pandemic appears particularly problematic. At the time, the science was not settled, leading to frequent changes in recommendations communicated to the public. While experts generally emphasized that such guidelines might change given emerging scientific evidence, this subtlety was often lost in translation. Some of the disconnect between the science and how it was disseminated was accidental; but other reasons for unclear communication stemmed from the strategic calculations of partisan actors and profit-driven media organizations who had their own agendas. Prior research has shown that newspapers and cable news frequently featured partisan actors in Covid-19-related coverage (sometimes at higher rates than health experts), but little was known about the content of local television news coverage during the same period, a gap this study fills. This is an important gap as local news remains one of the few trusted sources of news for Americans. We caution that even when intentions are good, public health communicators should be mindful that factors like news organization ownership can shape the content of news conveyed to the public.

Read more relevant work from the COMM team:

This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Grant nos. 77645 and 79754). The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.

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