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3 Questions: Heather Hendershot on coverage of the pandemic

MIT media expert discusses the stark differences across U.S. media sources.   
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"The transmission of inaccurate beliefs about the virus is not just about 'facts.' It's about emotion," says Heather Hendershot. "I’d like to believe that the best way to fight misinformation is with information, but it’s possible that a public health campaign with a strong emotional resonance would be more effective."
"The transmission of inaccurate beliefs about the virus is not just about 'facts.' It's about emotion," says Heather Hendershot. "I’d like to believe that the best way to fight misinformation is with information, but it’s possible that a public health campaign with a strong emotional resonance would be more effective."
Photo: Jon Sachs/MIT SHASS Communications

Heather Hendershot, professor of comparative media studies, researches conservative media and political movements, film and television genres, and American film history. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line.” She is currently writing a book on media coverage of the Chicago 1968 Democratic National Convention. We spoke with Hendershot recently about the great differences in pandemic coverage across different media channels and sources.

Q: A recent study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that people who relied on conservative media outlets and social media for their news were more likely to hold inaccurate beliefs about the seriousness of the virus and how it is spread. While there is still plenty we don’t yet know about this virus, highly regarded scientists and public health experts do agree on how lethal it is and how it is spread. How or why are these facts being inadequately presented?
A: That’s a good question. I’d like to complicate it a bit by saying that it would be better to ask about people who rely on “right-wing” — not “conservative” — media. The meaning of “conservatism” has changed over time, but to put it very bluntly, there’s no previous version of American conservatism that would accommodate a president who is comfortable with foreign interference in U.S. elections. Media outlets like OAN (One America News) and Fox News are straight-up right-wing sources.

Such sources have spread a tremendous amount of inaccurate information about the pandemic, and it is disturbing to see how many people believe those sources, ignoring so much accurate information from scientists and health experts. Your question is about how or why facts are being inadequately represented, and one response might be to consider how more objective sources could offer corrective information.

Here’s what’s key to understand: The transmission of inaccurate beliefs about the virus is not just about “facts.” It's about emotion. Scientists naturally want to believe that people can be rational and that facts properly presented will convince people, but that is often not the case, because right-wing media outlets offering inaccurate information are also stoking fear and hatred and fostering deeply personal and emotional — or irrational — responses, such that people misperceive effective, caring responses to a grave public health crisis as an attack on their liberty, on their desire to own semiautomatic weapons, or even on their “right” to get a haircut or a manicure.

I’d like to believe that the best way to fight misinformation is with information, but it’s possible that a public health campaign with a strong emotional resonance would be more effective. Remember those Ad Council “this is your brain on drugs” TV spots that showed nothing but an egg frying in a pan? That might be the kind of simple, highly charged, and non-scientific messaging that some people need about masks — maybe just a haggard person in an ICU unit saying, “I thought masks were too uncomfortable. Then I was put on a ventilator.”

Q:  Fox News host Laura Ingram has called the Democratic Party the “Pandemic Party.” Should mainstream media outlets counter this type of brash statement politicizing a deadly global disease?

A: To answer this question you have to separate “mainstream media” (CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS) targeting a mass audience from the niche approach of 24-hour cable news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC that feature mostly centrist reporting and liberal commentary.

CNN and MSNBC know that Fox is their main competitor, and their own viewers are anti-Fox. So when a Fox News host stokes a conspiracy theory about Covid-19, CNN and MSNBC might sometimes be responsive, but they are much, much more likely to respond directly to the president’s tweets about the coronavirus crisis than they are to brash statements by Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity. Since those presidential tweets often draw quite directly from right-wing news sources like Fox and OAN, the cable news media are indirectly responding to those outlets, but it is framed as a response to Trump.

The networks are less likely to respond to a right-wing news story about the pandemic. They have much less space for news and no imperative to cater to a politically slanted demographic. This bears repeating: The mainstream news media cater to a politically centrist viewer base and attempt to maintain neutrality. The president and other right-wing voices insist that what they call the “lamestream” media is biased against them, but everything in the professional training of journalists such as Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour orients them to strive for balance.

At its worst, this can result in the “both sides-ism” that we have seen since Trump’s election, where neo-Nazis and white nationalists receive more airtime than they should in the name of “fairness.” Certainly, there are mainstream network TV journalists who reveal a biased slant in their social media feeds or in their reporting, and I’m not staking a purist claim for the integrity of those reporters, but, rather, pointing to what they are striving for.

Should mainstream media outlets respond to outrageous statements from Fox about Covid-19? I would argue no. No one who agrees with Laura Ingraham or Jeanine Pirro will tune into the CBS Evening News, listen to a rebuttal, and change their minds. It is not the job of respectable and truthful (though imperfect) network news outlets to shoot down conspiracy theories. Indeed, the worst thing they could do would be to amplify those theories, simply by talking about them. Tucker Carlson recently said that cities are opening up not because sheltering in place was effective, but because it turns out that the virus isn’t really very deadly after all. There’s no reason for other networks to boost the signal of ridiculous and dangerous statements like that.

That said, when the president and people in his administration blatantly lie, claiming for example that the coronavirus numbers are not really going up, we’re just testing too much, responsible news outlets must report and debunk such statements. To put it plainly, if Ingraham says on her show that it’s not a public health risk for the president to hold a large rally in Oklahoma, I wouldn’t expect CNN or NBC to rebut her, but if Trump or Vice President Pence say such things, responsible journalists should call it out.

Q:  Over the past several months, President Trump has identified Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” “Chinese virus,” and the "kung flu." The news media have questioned him about using these terms, citing them as xenophobic, but in doing so they repeat this term. Does coverage of the president’s terminology inflame racism, or is this coverage responsible journalism?

A: Yes, absolutely, repeating Trump’s use of phrases like the “Chinese virus” inflames racism. In covering this sort of language as news, journalists might seem responsible because they are revealing Trump’s xenophobia. And yet that’s not news. We already know he is xenophobic, and we know that he caters to racists in his base. At what point does this sort of reporting devolve into mere amplification? That’s my constant question as I consume news today: Is this reporting or amplification?

Trump has manipulated the news cycle over and over again with his tweets and, especially in the past two months, with his Coronavirus Task Force news conferences. When he says something that is patently dangerous, such as encouraging dangerous self-medication or self-injection with disinfectants, it is responsible for journalists to respond because Trump’s words might lead people to harm themselves. On the other hand, when he uses Twitter to attack another politician as a “skank” or to promote a conspiracy theory that a cable news host is a murderer, it’s not news. It reveals nothing we did not previously know about his character.

I’d like to see the news media be substantially less reactive to the bait that the president feeds them everyday. That said, I appreciate what a difficult situation they are in at the live coronavirus briefings. Imagine being an Asian-American reporter asking the president a question about his viewing of coronavirus testing as a “global competition” and receiving the caustic response “ask China.” This same CBS reporter, Weijia Jiang, tweeted in March that a White House official speaking to her had referred to the coronavirus as the “kung-flu.”

Reporters want to tell the story, not be the story, but the racist angle to this exchange with Jiang was obvious and needed to be reported. The president also frequently attacks PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor, another woman of color. Such behavior must be called out.

Trump obviously continues to find new ways to seize the media spotlight, and he is obviously ready to return to holding campaign rallies. The most responsible journalistic choice the news media could make would be to provide clips or summaries of the president’s events rather than live coverage, turning the spotlight down, if not off.

Interview prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Maria Iacobo

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