Should you wear a mask when you go out in public? Yes, according to revised guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But at one of President Trump’s daily press briefings, he said that “It’s only a recommendation,” adding, “I don’t think I am going to be doing it.” What about taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, to fight COVID-19? The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from encouraging its use despite inconclusive scientific evidence regarding its effectiveness.
When the president contradicts agency officials and medical experts (oftentimes from behind the very same podium), it can be difficult for Americans to keep the facts straight. That is why the media’s role as a watchdog is vital to democracy — its job is to hold government officials accountable and investigate the veracity of the administration’s claims, especially when they are in response to rapidly evolving events.
How close are we to a COVID-19 vaccine? l FiveThirtyEight
But the media has come up short in previous times of crisis, deferring too much to the administration to dictate the terms and frame the events, at the expense of including critical viewpoints. And the notion of a watchdog press has taken on a new meaning. In our fragmented media environment, viewers increasingly choose their news based on their politics and news outlets are incentivized to pick a side — tout the president’s message uncritically to cater to a conservative audience, or criticize the administration’s every move in order to appeal to a more liberal audience. This, in turn, creates a misinformed public. We see this play out with the coronavirus — Republicans and Democrats view the basic facts differently, and that threatens a functioning democracy.
Studies from political communication suggest that the press tends to be more deferential to the administration when the country faces a crisis, a byproduct of the “rally ’round the flag” effect, a phenomenon in which political differences are set aside during times of crisis while the public, politicians and media rally behind the government. It’s also a consequence of a norm of reporting, which is to rely on official governmental sources for interviews and as guests on news programs, because they are viewed as credible and reliable authorities.
But as a crisis unfolds and conflict appears, the press usually broadens its coverage, poking holes in the administration’s messaging. As Daniel Hallin, a communications professor at the University of California, San Diego, documents in his book “The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam,” the national media initially accepted the administration’s view that the conflict in Vietnam was part of a broader struggle against communism. But over time, Hallin writes, that narrative grew difficult for the administration to sustain, due in part to reporters’ access to soldiers, who had a different story to tell. Reporters viewed these soldiers as equally authoritative on the war, and thus included more of their perspective in their stories, even as it deviated from the administration’s own version of events.
Or take what happened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Bush administration falsely claimed that there was a link between al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for 9/11, and Iraq President Saddam Hussein, and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which the administration then used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. These claims were then repeated by top government officials and amplified by the media to such a degree that, according to a CNN/Time poll conducted a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, 76 percent of Americans believed that Hussein was working with al-Qaida. And according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted the month of the invasion, almost 9 out of 10 believed that it was at least somewhat likely that the U.S. would find conclusive evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or the facilities to develop them.
It would take months of reporting before the media identified cracks in the administration’s story, such as disagreements between intelligence agencies and the U.S. Departments of State and Energy about Iraq’s nuclear capacity. But media coverage of the Iraq War also grew increasingly partisan over time, with outlets like Fox New remaining more sympathetic to the war effort than other networks, and featuring more Bush administration officials as sources.
The consequences of this difference were noteworthy. One study found that people who named Fox News as their primary news source were actually more likely to hold misinformed views. In other words, although studies have also found that those who pay less attention to the news are generally more misinformed, in this case more attention to Fox News also meant a higher level of misinformation.
A similar partisan misinformation gap might be developing around Democrats’ and Republicans’ understanding of the coronavirus, which may have to do with where they get their news. The initial differences between Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes on the coronavirus were quite large, and while there is some evidence these partisan differences are overblown or have shrunk, signs also point to a gap in knowledge of basic facts about the coronavirus. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted March 10-16, there are notable differences in Americans’ knowledge of the coronavirus among those who identified Fox News, MSNBC or CNN as their main source of political news. For instance, 78 percent of MSNBC and 57 percent of CNN viewers correctly answered that a vaccine will not be available within a year, compared with only 51 percent of Fox News viewers. And according to a Data for Progress poll conducted April 11, Fox News viewers are more likely to believe that hydroxychloroquine is a proven treatment for COVID-19 (25 percent) than CNN viewers (6 percent) and MSNBC (4 percent) viewers. Data for Progress also found Fox News viewers were more likely to say that the flu is more deadly than coronavirus (19 percent) than CNN (8 percent) and MSNBC (3 percent) viewers. These different views of the facts could spell trouble.
While there isn’t yet evidence of a partisan gap when it comes to support for social distancing measures (just 8 percent of Republican voters and 4 percent of Democratic voters said such measures were not effective), there are signs that Republicans are more eager for these measures to end and to get back to work. When asked if it would be safe to end social distancing measures before or by May 1, 30 percent of Republicans said yes, compared to just 4 percent of Democrats, according to a poll from The Economist/YouGov conducted April 12-14.
The partisan split doesn’t appear to extend to public opinion on medical institutions. A March 24-29 Pew poll found large majorities of Democrats and Republicans have a favorable opinion of the CDC, and a Quinnipiac poll conducted in the first week of April found 77 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats approve of how Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has handled the response.
However, public opinion could change if the timeline to “reopen” the economy becomes a big political fight in the coming weeks, especially if Trump renews calls to fire Fauci or questions his medical expertise. These signals from the president are crucial, too, because studies have found that conservatives have become increasingly distrustful of science, and that distrust is greatest amongst consumers of conservative media. The consequences of a growing misinformation gap might vary from the immediate, such as a shift in adherence to preventive behaviors like avoiding large gatherings, to the long term — such as a difference in who is believed to be responsible for the economic and public health fallout. And all this might hinge on editorial decisions by media outlets in how they choose to cover this ongoing crisis.