Media's Virus Messaging Shapes Public Compliance, Skepticism

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Governments scrambling to gauge how their populations are accepting coronavirus stay-at-home orders have turned, in some cases, to cellphone tracking to measure compliance. Yet this mass surveillance captures only the physical aspect of the pandemic-related information environment. To understand why some residents willingly shelter in place while others ignore government orders, and to gauge where our nation might be heading next, we need to better understand media coverage of the coronavirus and what the public has been told about it since the beginning.

In the predominant media retelling of this pandemic’s history, public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci sounded the alarm from day one, warning the public of everything that has come to pass. In reality, health officials spent most of January reassuring Americans that the virus’ threat here was “just minuscule” and that by screening travelers arriving from China, there would likely be little spread to the homeland.

Even as the virus reached the United States, U.S. and international public health officials continued to downplay its severity and risk. For weeks, all Americans heard was that the virus was either nothing to worry about or that it was a “foreign” disease, which the U.S. was taking stringent measures to guard against.

By the end of February, the mainstream media had yet to recognize the virus as a threat, with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News affording it less than 1% of their combined airtime over the course of the month. Even as mentions grew to 3% at the end of the month, the global pandemic was given just a tenth of the airtime of Bernie Sanders as the media focused largely on the 2020 presidential race.

While business and international television news began covering the spread heavily starting on Jan. 20, mainstream domestic channels didn’t finally turn their full attention to the outbreak until Feb. 25.

A similar pattern played out worldwide. English language news coverage monitored by the GDELT Project shows that locations mentioned in global coverage of the virus grew in three stages. (To see the spread, view the animated version here.)

In that animated version of the map above, there is a sharp rise in the number of places associated with virus mentions starting around Jan. 20; another increase starting around Feb. 26; and a final expansion on March 11.

The majority of these mentions are not about infections, but rather references to airport screening, hypothetical scenarios, quarantines, and the creation of task forces. In short, the map captures how awareness of the virus and its potential impacts spread in bursts over the last three months.

The tone of initial coronavirus coverage was relatively clinical, but since Feb. 25, worldwide English online news coverage on all related topics has taken a sharp turn towards anxious language. The timeline below measures the percentage of all words in global English news coverage monitored by GDELT that represent “anxiety” (as measured by Colin Martindale's Regressive Imagery Dictionary) from Jan. 1, 2019 to present. From Feb. 25 to around March 23, anxiety terms in global news coverage soared and have remained elevated ever since, reflecting how much the pandemic has impacted every topic and walk of life. (Click to enlarge.)

With the media’s gaze now fixed squarely on the pandemic, the emphasis has focused almost exclusively on its health impact. For its part, CNN has devoted more than a third of its daily airtime every day since March 21 to showing live updates of the number of people infected or killed by the virus, with just a few brief mentions of its devastating economic impact.

Governments wondering why some citizens are not taking the viral threat more seriously might do well to look back on their own steady drumbeat of messaging continually downplaying the COVID-19 threat. Lawmakers frustrated with quarantine violators might be wise to also consider that Congress closed its public tours just four weeks ago -- after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly refused calls to cancel them or close public galleries.

Had politicians and public health officials sounded the alarm from the beginning and maintained consistent messaging of the virus’ domestic threat, perhaps the public would be more accepting of quarantine and economic disruption. Instead, by inoculating the public that the pathogen posed little threat and then abruptly pivoting to shutting the nation down, the public understandably is less trusting in the government’s warnings.

Now, the news media are increasingly discussing a potential end to lockdowns. Triggered in part by President Trump’s hope of easing restrictions first by Easter and now by May 1, mentions of “reopen, reopening, reopens or reopened” sharply increased on March 24, then largely faded until April 8 and have increased every day since, reaching 5% of total airtime and climbing.

With the press sounding this latest theme, public health officials’ desire to continue lockdowns indefinitely is running head-on into increased awareness of this action’s incalculable economic and emotional toll. Which message proves more forceful will be a pivotal plot point in the medical-social drama playing out in the media – and in nearly everyone’s life.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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