News media coverage of COVID-19 public health and policy information

Katharine J. Mach, Raúl Salas Reyes, Brian Pentz, Jennifer Taylor, Clarissa A. Costa, Sandip G. Cruz, Kerronia E. Thomas, James C. Arnott, Rosalind Donald, Kripa Jagannathan, Christine J. Kirchhoff, Laura C. Rosella, Nicole Klenk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

During a pandemic, news media play a crucial role in communicating public health and policy information. Traditional newspaper coverage is important amidst increasing disinformation, yet uncertainties make covering health risks and efforts to limit transmission difficult. This study assesses print and online newspaper coverage of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 for March 2020, when the global pandemic was declared, through August 2020 in three countries: Canada (with the lowest per-capita case and death rates during the study timeframe), the United Kingdom (with a pronounced early spike), and the United States (with persistently high rates). Tools previously validated for pandemic-related news records allow measurement of multiple indicators of scientific quality (i.e., reporting that reflects the state of scientific knowledge) and of sensationalism (i.e., strategies rendering news as more extraordinary than it really is). COVID-19 reporting had moderate scientific quality and low sensationalism across 1331 sampled articles in twelve newspapers spanning the political spectrums of the three countries. Newspapers oriented towards the populist-right had the lowest scientific quality in reporting, combined with very low sensationalism in some cases. Against a backdrop of world-leading disease rates, U.S. newspapers on the political left had more exposing coverage, e.g., focused on policy failures or misinformation, and more warning coverage, e.g., focused on the risks of the disease, compared to U.S. newspapers on the political right. Despite the generally assumed benefits of low sensationalism, pandemic-related coverage with low scientific quality that also failed to alert readers to public-health risks, misinformation, or policy failures may have exacerbated the public-health effects of the disease. Such complexities will likely remain central for both pandemic news media reporting and public-health strategies reliant upon it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number220
JournalHumanities and Social Sciences Communications
Volume8
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Psychology(all)
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance(all)

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