In general, the less disputable a fact is, the harder it is to politicize the fact in the news. For example, stories about the weather report, a sports score, or a natural disaster don’t usually register much detectable left-right bias. Those types of stories would ordinarily fall in the middle of the Media Bias Chart according to our ratings. Initially, coronavirus outbreak stories tended to fall in this minimally biased category.
However, now that the outbreak has dominated the news for several weeks and is the biggest story out there, the structure of our polarized news media environment has turned coronavirus stories extremely polarizing. It has become so polarizing that partisans on the left and the right believe entirely different things about how dangerous the outbreak is and what kind of precautions are warranted.
As an initial matter, I strongly advise that people take as much precaution as is warranted by the facts, and that people take care to differentiate whether they are reading fact-based or analysis/opinion-based stories, and focus on the fact-based ones above all else. I advise that people do this generally, but it’s especially important when people’s health is on the line — I don’t need to be a health expert to make such a recommendation.
Below are headlines from across the spectrum on the coronavirus. Every week, our analysts rate six articles about one news topic from across the news landscape, and we put these articles in our CART News Literacy platform for teachers and students to rate themselves. Both this week and last week, we selected articles about the coronavirus because it’s so important to recognize how differently this story is getting covered in different publications.
To understand how an ostensibly non-political story about a virus has turned into such a political and polarized story, it is helpful to sub-categorize all the general topics and themes that can exist within “coronavirus stories.” The facts about the virus themselves are not ones that people quickly associate with any political “side.” For example, facts about how many people are sick, how many have died, where they are located, and how they got infected are all non-partisan facts.
However, the virus facts are related to several very political topics on which people easily take sides, including the following:
-Trump’s job performance
The more an article is about these highly politicized topics and the less it is about the basic “virus facts,” the more likely it is to be a polarizing article.
One can easily identify the expected left/right split on the topics listed above. Regarding the topic of Trump’s job performance, the right thinks it’s just fine and the left says it’s awful.
The topics of the economy, media coverage, and election outcome issues are all tied together. Both sides agree that a bad economy is bad for Trump’s re-election prospects, which creates a bit of internal tension on the left — no one on the left should personally want a recession, but if it resulted in a worsening of Trump’s re-election chances, that would be a silver lining.
On the right, these potential outcomes for their side on these topics are viewed as bad all around. A bad economy plus the fact that it hurts Trump’s re-election chances is a double whammy. On the right, deep distrust of the media causes that issue to be lumped in with the economy and the election, causing many to believe that media coverage of the coronavirus is intended to hurt the economy and Trump’s re-election chances.
On racial/ethnic discrimination, the left sees a big problem in the fact that people are exhibiting prejudice against anyone who is or looks Asian. On immigration, the right is using the global spread of the disease to advocate for stricter immigration restrictions in general.
The inclusion of these political topics therefore introduces left-right divides into coronavirus articles. Most news readers conflate all issues within an article, though, and don’t mentally separate the non-partisan coronavirus facts from the related partisan topics. As a result, there are now entire conflicting left-right narratives related to coronavirus facts themselves. These conflicting narratives are causing people of different political orientations to take different levels of precaution, which is nuts.
People should be taking precautions based on the facts, not on the divergent left-right narratives. Some people are irrational and will over- or under-react no matter what, even if they are only over- or under-reacting based on the facts. But it is especially dangerous in this case if people under-react based on a particular widespread partisan narrative.
The narratives manifest differently on the left and the right. Many left-biased analysis/opinion articles include a strong focus on the shortcomings of Trump and his administration’s response. These criticisms certainly have merit, but there is a difference between pointing out a deficiency in a policy or action and fueling partisan divide with an article titled “Let’s Call it Trumpvirus,” a recent opinion piece from the New York Times. This polarizing framing is unhelpful.
Based on the left-right positions identified above regarding the economy and Trump’s re-election chances, one could assume that the most egregiously partisan and unhelpful left-biased articles would include some purposeful overreaction to the virus, or expressions of glee in the economic downturn because of its negative effect on Trump’s re-election chances. Those on the left may chafe at the suggestion that there are people on their side rooting for an economic downturn because it hurts us all, but there are examples out there. Partisanship is a helluva drug. However, those examples don’t appear to have much mainstream traction. The biggest themes in left-leaning narratives focus on criticism of Trump’s poor handling of the crisis and lack of candor/accuracy when he speaks.
The right-biased analysis/opinion narratives and articles, however, do have a lot of mainstream traction in the biggest right-leaning news sources (see, e.g., this clip from Fox Business host Trish Regan). Because right-leaning partisan positions on the topics identified above are 1) Trump is doing a good job, 2) we don’t want to have a bad economy in any case, 3) we don’t want anything to hurt Trump’s re-election, and 4) the media is out to make Trump look bad whenever possible, the resulting right-biased narrative is that the media is purposefully overreacting to the virus, and really, the risk presented by the virus is not that bad.
Right-leaning news sources are incentivized to find reasons, based on their pre-conceived notions about Trump, the economy, the election, and the media, to downplay the risks of the virus and blame the media, which is why Rush Limbaugh said the coronavirus was nothing more than “the common cold.” Better news about the virus would indicate that Trump is doing things right. If the outbreak is really not that bad, that would reduce the impact to the economy, which would in turn reduce the risk to Trump’s re-election chances. Those on the right may chafe at the suggestion that there are people on their side incorrectly downplaying the health risk because doing so would endanger themselves and others, but there are (lots of) examples out there. Partisanship is a helluva drug.
In view of the facts about the virus (see a highly fact-centric collection of recent articles from the Associated Press here), though, downplaying its risks because of a partisan viewpoint is highly dangerous. The public health dangers caused by right and left partisan narratives are not symmetrical. The six articles above are quite representative of the coverage on the left and right.
To the extent the left may be overreacting, the worst result would be that people on the left will be taking extra health precautions. For those that argue that overreaction on the left or by the media is causing the stock market decline, there does not appear to be any compelling evidence that U.S. media coverage of the virus, rather than the effects of the virus itself, are causing the decline. The spread of the virus in countries around the world and the actions other governments have taken are outside the control us the U.S. media, and affect things such as international supply chains and business travel, which have their own effects on the U.S. stock market.
To the extent that the right is underreacting, the worst result would be that people on the right would take insufficient health precautions and tell others that they can do the same. In my own social media feeds, I see this manifest in my conservative friends sharing posts about how “the numbers” of coronavirus infections and deaths really mean that it’s not much worse than the flu. Given that mortality rates for older people and those with compromised immune systems are extremely high according to this February 16-24 WHO report on COVID-19, the price of underestimating the risk presented by the coronavirus certainly includes death.
Take a look at how coronavirus stories have become partisan by looking at the examples linked in this article and remain vigilant about how polarizing news media affects your own actions. Stick to the most fact-based stories and make decisions about your health and well-being based on those.