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Calm or Chaos: The Role of the Media During a Crisis

May 5, 2020

Lockdown Newspaper HeadlineAs the COVID-19 2020 news headlines continue to dominate, the American public is facing an onslaught of information about the pandemic. Social and traditional media are covering developments, spreading opinions, and broadcasting statistics about COVID-19. There has been a strong association between coronavirus media coverage and an increase in public attention on the virus itself and in web searches for such terms as “N95” face masks.1 The role of media in the COVID-19 pandemic is significant in shaping public behavior, so as we head into the next phase of the pandemic, journalists and the general public are being forced to consider what role the media should assume moving forward.

Some people complain that the media is biased and that it is difficult to find neutral sources of information.In addition, misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run rampant on social media.3 This climate of mistrust and misinformation can lead to real-world problems, amplified by crisis situations: empty shelves, shortages of vital goods, and racism towards people of Asian descent.4

Some say that the 24-hour news cycle is becoming a place where too much information, delivered all at once, creates challenging threads for the American public to untangle in order to get an accurate understanding of the progression of the virus.5 This cycle has the negative effect of drowning out the voices and advice of public health officials.6 There are also some news sources that characterize potential vaccines and treatments for the virus in ways that create a false sense of security.7

However, there are journalists who have done crucial reporting on what President Donald Trump has said, and how, at times, his comments have contrasted with comments from experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. There has been an analysis that puts U.S. news in the context of the greater global outbreak of the virus.8 And there has been news that criticizes the U.S. response to the coronavirus and offers solutions on the basis of what other countries have done and what leading experts and academics recommend. However, the problem still remains: there is no certainty during this time due to a lack of discrete medical analysis, medical testing, and length of experience with COVID-19.

We also see some media coverage that aims to unify the country during the pandemic. News stories and op-eds have called for citizens to stay home, volunteer, and donate to organizations that support front-line healthcare workers and those in need.9 Local news agencies, individuals, and even TV show franchises have taken on the task of inspiring national unity and promoting hope, including former President George W. Bush and the cast of “Parks and Recreation,” showing that “Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being.”10

Some news sources and media outlets play these roles simultaneously, sending mixed signals and making it difficult to get the most accurate information and analysis. Scientists and experts are also struggling with this phenomenon because they are still trying to learn and make sense of something they have never seen before.11 This requires all of us to be critical consumers of media; it also raises questions about the responsibilities and roles of news outlets.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your level of engagement with the news and media during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. What do you believe should be the role of media during a crisis situation like the pandemic?
  3. Do you believe that national media outlets should have coordinated with each other, as well as with the federal government, to have a similar targeted response to covering COVID-19?
  4. During a crisis, should the media trust and amplify messages from government officials, or be skeptical of those messages?
  5. With the pandemic taking place during the build-up toward a presidential election, do you believe that COVID-19 headlines and coverage is being heavily influenced by the current political climate of the United States? Why or why not?

Other Resources:



Featured Image Credit: Dan Simon/CNN
[1] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2020/03/02/media_coverage_and_coronavirus_panic_what_the_numbers_show_142539.html
[2] Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/poll/225755/americans-news-bias-name-neutral-source.aspx
[3] PBS Newshour: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-dangerous-global-flood-of-misinformation-surrounding-covid-19
[4] The Bulletin: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/coronavirus-coverage-where-the-media-have-gone-wrong/
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The Bulletin: https://thebulletin.org/2020/03/coronavirus-coverage-where-the-media-have-gone-wrong/
[8] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-02-07/how-the-global-media-covered-stories-about-the-coronavirus-outbreak
[9] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2020/03/02/media_coverage_and_coronavirus_panic_what_the_numbers_show_142539.html
[10] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/03/us/politics/george-w-bush-coronavirus-unity.html; Variety: https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/parks-and-rec-reunion-special-covid-19-1234588655/; The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/inspiring-galvanizing-beautiful-spirit-2020/608308/
[11] Vox: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/13/21214114/media-coronavirus-pandemic-coverage-cdc-should-you-wear-masks


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