For months, Americans were told by public health officials to avoid mass gatherings and stay home in order to stop the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. Many states explicitly banned gatherings over a certain number of people — usually 10 to 25 people — and many local and state governments continue to ban or discourage them to this day.
But despite these warnings and bans, bias has plagued media coverage of the mass gatherings that have occurred around the nation in recent months. When media outlets and public health professionals didn't support the political ideology of the gatherers, they emphasized the danger of gathering. When they did support the politics of the gatherers, they tended to downplay the threats.
Starting around April, numerous anti-lockdown protests against government stay-at-home orders were held by those who see bans on opening their businesses as an infringement on their freedom and ability to feed their families. The message from public health officials at the time was clear: protests will encourage viral spread and are not okay. Media outlets like The Guardian and ABC News, both rated by AllSides as Lean Left, made note, running the headlines, “US anti-lockdown rallies could cause surge in Covid-19 cases, experts warn,” and “‘We disagree’: Medical professionals counter coronavirus lockdown protesters,” respectively.
Then in June, the killing of George Floyd sparked mass gatherings around the nation, in the form of protests, riots, statue topplings, and marches from those who are angered by what they see as systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. These events continue to this day. Coverage of mass gatherings on all sides showed media and public official bias — with different framing on display sometimes just an hour apart.
Take NBC News, which on June 14 tweeted, “Rally for Black trans lives draws packed crowd to Brooklyn Museum plaza.” An hour later, NBC tweeted, “President Trump plans to rally his supporters next Saturday for the first time since most of the country was shuttered by the coronavirus. But health experts are questioning that decision.”
Both of these headlines are objective statements, but mentioning that health experts are concerned about coronavirus transmission in the case of a Trump rally, and not mentioning those concerns for the Black trans lives rally, amounts to a clear case of bias. Brooklyn is in Phase Three reopening, according to the New York Department of Health, which also states social gatherings are "only permitted if ... 25 or fewer people are in attendance in Phases Two and Three regions." So which type of bias is this?
My initial thought was that this was a case of media bias by omission, in which news outlets omit information that would support an alternative viewpoint. But were any health experts concerned about viral transmission at the Black trans lives protest? If none of them were, this would mean the media wasn’t technically omitting their view.
Flawed logic or faulty reasoning is certainly on display here, as well as slant, a type of bias in which journalists ignore another perspective — in this case, the perspective that all mass gatherings, no matter the ideology of the gatherers, transmit coronavirus.
Here is another example from NPR, pointed out by Media Research Center, rated Right by AllSides. NPR, which AllSides rates as Center (though close to Lean Left, online news only), ran these two headlines a little over an hour apart: “Even in a Pandemic, WHO Believes That Public Protests Are Important.” “Trump to Restart Political Rallies This Month Despite Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Viruses don’t have political ideologies, so it stands to reason they wouldn’t distinguish where to spread based on the causes of mass gatherers. That would be absurd. But you may begin to believe this, if you are reading news in a filter bubble.
Headlines from Vox also illustrate the flawed logic. An April headline from the Left-rated outlet claims anti-lockdown protests reveal “whiteness,” “ignorance,” “privilege,” and the willingness of protesters to “risk their lives.” In June, however, Vox explains that not protesting carries a “cost greater than potentially getting a virus” — for Black Lives Matter protesters, at least:
Here again we have flawed logic, specifically, cognitive dissonance. Could it not be the case that anti-lockdown protesters also viewed not protesting as carrying a cost greater than potentially getting a virus?
For what it’s worth, the media’s contradictory headlines appear to be largely echoing the statements of public health experts, some of whom, to their credit, have begun to openly admit their bias. The New York Times (Lean Left media bias rating) explored this in a July 6 piece titled, “Are Protests Unsafe? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What.”
Quoted is Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who studies Covid-19 and attended a recent protest in Houston against the killing of George Floyd.
“I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I’m not condemning the protests now, and I struggle with that,” she said. “I have a hard time articulating why that is OK.”
Mark Lurie, a professor of epidemiology at Brown University, is quoted as saying, “Instinctively, many of us in public health feel a strong desire to act against accumulated generations of racial injustice. But we have to be honest: A few weeks before, we were criticizing protesters for arguing to open up the economy and saying that was dangerous behavior. I am still grappling with that.”
The New York Times also details a May 30 letter of support of anti-racism protests that more than 1,300 public health officials signed:
“The letter signed by more than 1,300 epidemiologists and health workers urged Americans to adopt a “consciously anti-racist” stance and framed the difference between the anti-lockdown demonstrators and the protesters in moral, ideological and racial terms.
Those who protested stay-at-home orders were “rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives” the letter stated.
By contrast, it said, those protesting systemic racism “must be supported.”
“As public health advocates,” they stated, “we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health.””
Just as journalism, which used to strive to be apolitical and objective, has become tainted by ideological bias, it appears the same thing may be happening in the field of epidemiology.
At AllSides, we always remind people that everyone has a bias, no matter who you are — journalists, researchers, public health officials, secretaries, construction workers — and that’s okay. It’s human, and it’s normal to have preferences, partialities, leanings and beliefs. The problem is when we are not aware of our bias or when it is hidden. Hidden bias misleads, manipulates, and divides us.
I applaud the New York Times for getting some public health officials on the record stating their bias, so that people can transparently understand their political leanings and then decide for themselves what they think of their recommendations and stances. But not only do we see professionals in the field of science injecting partisan stances into their advice, media outlets do not seem to be reporting on the contradictions with scrutiny. Scientists and journalists alike ought to at least try to depoliticize and remain objective. Yet as America’s political divide only deepens as we approach the November election, it is likely we will see even more issues and professions that were once removed from the snares of political ideology become partisan, and journalists who fail to ask the tough questions — and that’s not good for any of us.
Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides. She has a Lean Right bias.
This piece was reviewed by AllSides Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter, who has a Center bias, and Micaela Ricaforte, News Editor, who has a Center bias.