Research: U.S. cable news politicises coronavirus coverage

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA


Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, television news has served as a crucial source of information for Americans. In fact, many networks saw record ratings during the crisis. News coverage not only provides the public with updates on the impact of the virus, but also serves as a guiding force for how to act in response to the situation.

But what happens when viewers get a different story depending on which network they choose? The Center for Media Engagement’s study of coronavirus coverage on cable and nightly network news broadcasts reveals how cable news networks are politicising the virus — seemingly putting profit and partisanship above public health.

Different types of news programming had an impact on how people interpreted news about the coronavirus.
Different types of news programming had an impact on how people interpreted news about the coronavirus.

The research

To analyse how networks were covering the coronavirus, the Center for Media Engagement looked at the content of primetime cable news network shows on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, and of nightly network news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The study examined coverage between January 2020, when the United States saw its first confirmed case of coronavirus, and June 2020, after the country passed two million confirmed or probable cases.

People and organisations referenced: For this part of the study, we looked at differences in how often networks mentioned health officials and organisations and how often they mentioned partisans.

The results showed that Fox News and MSNBC discussed partisans more often than health officials and organisations, with Fox News more likely to mention Democrats in their coverage and MSNBC more likely to mention Republicans. Broadcast networks and CNN mentioned health officials and organisations more often than they mentioned partisans.

· Language used: To analyse the differences in the language used by the networks, we compared the phrases used across pairs of networks.

When comparing Fox News and MSNBC, we found that Fox News was more likely to talk about the virus in terms of business and the economy, and MSNBC was more likely to talk about the effects on healthcare institutions. MSNBC was more likely to use words relating to the scale of the virus, and Fox News was more likely to use terms related to China.

When comparing Fox News and CNN, we found Fox News was more likely to use words associated with business and the economy, more likely to discuss drug treatments, and more likely to mention China, whereas CNN was more likely to use words related to prevention and to discuss testing and vaccines.

A comparison of CNN and MSNBC found that MSNBC was more likely to use economic terms and words describing the widespread scale of the virus, and CNN was more likely to discuss a wide range of treatments.

When comparing cable networks to broadcast networks, we found ABC, CBS, and NBC used similar language. The broadcast networks were more likely than the cable networks to use specific terms like numbers, places, and locations when talking about the virus.

· Factual claims: The study looked at factual claims on two issues: mask-wearing and the use of disinfectants or ultraviolet light to fight the coronavirus. When covering mask-wearing, networks shared correct information (defined as statements suggesting people should wear masks in public) most of the time, though they all had instances where they presented incorrect information. Once the CDC released mask-wearing guidelines in April, the sharing of correct information increased across the networks. Fox News, however, was the least likely to present correct information after the guidelines were released.

When looking at coverage of the use of disinfectants and ultraviolet light, MSNBC and Fox News included incorrect or misleading information in more of their content than did the other networks.

What the results mean for news consumers

The results of this study show just how politicised the virus has become, but the implications go beyond the coronavirus pandemic. The simple act of choosing a news programme can drastically affect the information people are exposed to, and therefore affect how they act in a crisis, such as the pandemic.

It’s important for the public to know which way programmes lean and to consider whether the source is actually providing news — or just opinion.

About Katalina Deaven

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