Media Narratives and Polarization During COVID-19
In the years to come, the media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be scrutinized only a little less than the impact of the disease itself. The question will be debated over and over again- did the media help or hurt in the fight to contain the pandemic? One could certainly make a case in either direction, depending on various specific contexts and issues related to the outbreak and different media outlets’ responses to it. While in some instances their coverage has been helpful, at other times it has been contradictory, tone-deaf, and feeding the very polarization that much of it so often deplores, which is potentially dangerous at a time like this.
Did early media coverage provide a jolt that forced policymakers to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously when, in some cases, they might have been reluctant to act (as in the case of the United States Trump administration)? Or did early coverage precipitate a wave of public fear and disproportionate action, such as the unnecessary bouts of “panic buying” that emptied grocery stores and supermarkets across the world?
The thoughts of this author on the issue are mixed, as it should be (at least at first) with an issue this complex. On the one hand, a number of media outlets both local and national have been useful fonts of information- on the symptoms of the virus, the exact terms of shelter in place measures implemented in the Bay Area, and forecasts of what to expect in the stock market as economic turmoil has unfolded.
On the other hand, it is very easy to point to examples of media coverage providing contradictory information that led to confusion and logistical problems as the pandemic unfolded. A key example where this was the case was on the issue of masks, and their effectiveness. At first the messaging was that buying masks was unnecessary and was in fact being counterproductive by depriving essential workers of masks.
However, as time went on, the message shifted towards masks actually being an effective way of preventing the spread of the virus, which corresponded with governments in states like California and localities like the San Francisco Bay Area making masks mandatory to be worn at first in stores, and then outside at all, almost a complete 180 from the original stance on what do with masks.
It seemed as if the problem in the message that was emerging was a lack of nuance and distinction that later would become part of the narrative around when wearing masks is an appropriate decision. The masks people were buying up that were depriving hospital workers and other essential service providers were first and foremost N95 masks, which have enhanced and specialized filters.
Now, the policy that has been enforced in the Bay Area and elsewhere indicates that any kind of face covering, even a simple scarf or bandana, is enough to contribute to increased safety and lower risk of transmission when people go to stores to shop for groceries, or even just walking around on city streets to get much needed time in the fresh air away from the confinement of home.
The result of this confusion may well have been that fewer people have bought into the idea that any kind of mask is now an effective guarantor of not just their safety but the safety of others. Accurate measurement of data on this has yet to be done, but parts of the country are already seeing a backlash against the mask policy.
A case study of this is in a place like Ohio, where there has been success in flattening the curve despite early on there being a major threat of it becoming a hotspot for the spread of the epidemic. The governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, recently rescinded a statewide order he had previously put into place requiring the wearing of masks in stores. DeWine cited public backlash to the order, saying that it was “a step too far” and that the public would not accept additional restrictive measures when according to the numbers, progress has visibly been made in reducing the spread of the epidemic.
The initial response DeWine, a Republican, making such a U-Turn, in media and conventional liberal circles, might well reflexively skew towards skepticism of his motives for reversing his policy. While scrutiny is always warranted of public officials making critical health policy decisions in a situation like this, it might not be so easy to make a rush to judgement about DeWine’s motives and reasoning for making such a decision in this situation.
On the one hand, DeWine may be a Republican, but on the other his response to the outbreak was much different from that of the White House. He demonstrated no Trumpian reluctance to act in response to the pandemic, instead moving early and aggressively to implement response members such as the closing of schools in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. While a reasonable approach would be to ask about how DeWine evaluated public opinion in the state in order to make his decision on the mask issue, his track record indicates that he would not have made up the idea of public opposition to the mask order out of whole cloth for no reason.
Indeed, while public opinion as a whole on the seriousness of the COVID-19 epidemic is relatively widespread, on certain specific issues such as that of masks, there is a greater breakdown among partisan lines. Republicans have tended to be more resistant to the idea of wearing masks in public according to polling, although the numbers of them that are wearing masks are increasing, according to the data.
In the end, DeWine may well be accurate in taking the temperature of public opinion in his home state of Ohio, which despite being a historical swing statein recent years has trended increasingly Republican, voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election by a greater margin than the historically red-leaning state of Texas.
Furthermore, DeWine himself wonthe 2018 gubernatorial election by four points despite a resounding trend against Republicans nationwide that year, as well as even in other Midwestern states that flipped to Trump in 2016. Wisconsin and Michigan, which had both defected from voting historically Democratic to voting Trump in the last Presidential election, reversed course in 2018 and elected Democrats Tony Evers and Gretchen Whitmer to their statehouses. Ohio stayed on its red trajectory and gave DeWine the victory, despite him facing a strong opponent who had won statewide office previously, that being former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray.
DeWine could be rightly criticized for pandering to his base at the expense of public health, but it could be viewed in a more charitable light. In order to enact the measures that (as judged by his other actions in response to the pandemic), DeWine needs buy in from an audience/public that is inclined to be more skeptical of the restrictions in general.
He may genuinely feel like that without giving the public something, they won’t tolerate the continuation of other measures that he may feel to be more vital. One could call it a form of policy triage- a decision that one could disagree with, to be sure, but one that would at least have a degree of pragmatic, reasoned out thought behind it.
In other quarters, public opposition to the lockdown measures imposed has reared its head, in a quite ugly form in many cases. In the nearby state of Michigan, protests were staged in the capital of Lansing against shelter in place policies implemented by the aforementioned Gretchen Whitmer. These protests are composed in large part of people on the fringes of American politics, even by the standards of our increasingly divided, extreme age.
Many of the protesters, carrying weapons up to and including assault rifles, seem to come out of the right-wing patriot militia movement. A prominent figure driving the protests online and sometimes in person is the infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who could be seen at some rallies ranting against the lockdowns as a plot to take away the liberties of the people that he sees as everyday Americans.
Most absurdly and tragically of all, protesters at a Michigan protest attempted to block a caravan of ambulances from entering a hospital, in some cases screaming about a Communist takeover. It is, simply put, a sad spectacle to behold. In spite of these protests (or perhaps, at least for the moment, because of them, Whitmer does seem to hold the support of a large silent majority, as her polling numbers are overwhelmingly high according to recent surveys.
With all of that being said, something about the media coverage of these protests can be unsettling to read. The most stark example of this would be an article from Vox entitled “There is no anti lockdown protest movement.” The title itself caused a visceral reaction upon reading it, it reeks of the oblivious dismissiveness that led all of the “experts” to be completely wrong about the chances of Donald Trump to win the 2016 presidential election.
Upon reading the article, it does turn out to be more nuanced than the headline would seem to indicate. The body of the article consists of an interview with Harvard sociology professor Theda Skocpol, who authored a book about the Tea Party movement that arose in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and swept the Republican Party to power in the 2010 midterm elections.
Skocpol’s answers to the interviewer’s questions are actually a thoughtful, analytical series of insights drawing both similarities and differences between the anti-lockdown protesters and the Tea Party; however, she does describe both as being a combination of genuine grassroots anger manipulated from above and astroturfed by external actors, citing the right-wing advocacy organization FreedomWorks as an example. However, Skocpol is careful to say that that group is not and cannot be responsible for the protest movement as a whole, and that genuine anti-lockdown sentiment does exist.
There is an old saying dating back to the heyday of newspapers that no one reads the article, only the headline. That old saying is borne out by modern data in the internet age, as studies show that 60 percent of people will share online articles only based on the headline.
The author of the Vox piece, Sean Illing, may not bear whole amount or even most of the blame here, as at most publications editors are the ones who choose the headlines of articles, oftentimes without much input from the actual author. Illing himself notes that “ these protests are some combination of genuine activism and what’s often called “astroturfing…we can’t quite say it’s just one or the other.”
If it was the editors of Vox who made the choice to title the piece the way they did, then they made a foolish choice indeed, likely serving the short term goal of a declarative, provocative headline designed to get that 60 percent of readers to effortlessly click and then share quickly without combing the contents.
True, anti-lockdown movement may be relatively fringe for now, commanding only 22 percent of the public’s support according to one poll. But having 22 percent of public support is nonetheless enough to qualify it as a genuine movement, if easily a minority one. But throughout history, both conservative and progressive movements have gone on to effect massive change around the country starting from much smaller bases of support.
A piece in Jacobin magazine, a left wing online publication affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, recognizes that there is a genuine populism, if a twisted one, to the anti-lockdown movement (although it does note the financial support given to the Michigan protests by groups associated with the powerful conservative DeVos family). It is quite an irony that the centrist publication Vox would dismiss much of the ideas held by the likes of Jacobin as pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic proposals, while having a far more blinkered and less common sense view of the political landscape today.
Illing and Skocpol are both thoughtful enough to realize this and articulate the complexities of the issue in the piece, but Vox’s editors have put him in a position where, if events turn a certain way and anti-lockdown sentiment increases, he could end up looking very foolish indeed. In their quest for clicks and shares, the Vox team could end up doing long term harm to the reputation of both their own journalist, who they are supposed to be supporting, as well as their publication’s own reputation as a whole.
It is without question that the vast majority of people across the country are supportive of the shelter in place measures, anyone with a shred of common sense can see that that support will not last forever. As the Jacobin piece astutely puts it, “the anti-lockdown protests currently represent a Trumpian minority, but that could easily change if the choice becomes going hungry or going back to work.” And beyond that, human beings are simply not built to be confined in shelter-in-place like conditions for such long periods of time, especially when the numbers begin to
In order to maintain public health and safety, keeping public buy in at as close to consensus as possible is critical. The Trumpian White House may not recognize this, but governors of both parties do seem to. Mike DeWine in Ohio is one example, Gavin Newsom in California is one of the opposite party.
Newsom is faced with the rise of anti-lockdown protests in the major cities of his own state, as well as three counties in the state opting to ignore elements of the restrictions imposed by the shelter in place. If Newsom can not rely on all localities to enact his public safety policies, the entire state is at risk. While Newsom correctly insists that science will dictate how he approaches loosening up restrictions, keeping the public on board is vital to implementing the science.
This may be why, as these new developments unfold, Newsom spoke on Friday saying that some restrictions could be loosened sooner than anticipated, calling it a matter of “days, not weeks.” The key to maintaining a consensus in favor of keeping in place the measures designed to keep people safe is continuing to instill a sense of hope, that all of the sacrifices people have made during the shelter in place will be rewarded in the not too distant future.
In their coverage of the coronavirus, the media has sometimes been helpful in providing key information that has led people to understand the gravity of the situation and what is required of them. But at other times it has confused, and even contributed to the state of unease and polarization that persists even in a state of pandemic. It will need to do better, and soon, or grave consequences may follow.